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Workaround, Google shares longterm plan)

Workaround, Google shares longterm plan)

Several weeks ago, Google rolled out a change to Drive that lets you create shortcuts to files and folders. The feature had been in testing since August 2019, and its goal is to help you better organize shared files and folders without duplicating them, thus saving you storage and reducing the redundancy and confusion when you move things around. However, this seemingly benign improvement has completely ruined shared folders for anyone who syncs Drive locally to their PC or Mac.

Only newly shared folders are affected, for now

The feature regression isn’t yet visible if you’re working with folders that have already been shared and organized. So if your family, group of friends, team, or company already uses some shared folders, they won’t be affected until September 2020 — the date at which shared folders and files will be automatically switched to shortcuts for everyone except the original owner.

That temporary reprieve is likely why many of us didn’t notice the change. To see it in action, you have to try to share a file or folder now. On the sender’s end, nothing changes, but on the recipient’s end, things are completely different from what they used to be.

This article and the change it describes applies to people using Google Drive and shared folders, be it on personal Google accounts or G Suite ones. However, if you’re a G Suite user, Google recommends something completely different from basic shared files and folders, and which should be unaffected by this change: Shared Drives and Drive File Stream. File Stream may be more tedious to deploy, but it has advantages over Backup & Sync and is better suited for a professional environment. You can get a short explanation of the benefits in this discussion I had with realtestman in our comment section below.

What’s changing on the web

On the web, the switch to shortcuts is merely aesthetic from a user’s perspective. As long as you’re online, clicking a received file or folder opens them like you’re used to. However:

  • the option to “Move” them to our Drive is grayed out
  • the option to “Add to Drive” is now “Add shortcut to Drive”
  • dragging and dropping them to your Drive creates a shortcut too.
  • Edit: if you highlight the file and type Shift+Z on your keyboard, you should be offered the old option to move it to your Drive. See update note at the end of the post.

Top: “Move” or “Add” to Drive is no longer possible. You can only add a shortcut. Bottom: Even drag-and-drop creates shortcuts.

When they’re in your Drive, the icons have a shortcut arrow on them to differentiate them from the files and folders that you own.

The benefit here is that you can create as many shortcuts as you want, so you could quickly access a shared file or folder from multiple places inside your Drive without duplicating them. Anyone who enjoys hierarchy and organization will love this. File ownership is also clearer on Google’s end: One file, one owner, one place. Fewer sync issues, fewer bugs when people make modifications on their end. Based on the company’s documentation, this aspect seems to be the biggest motivator behind the change.

Interesting side effects

The one file equals one original location equation requires Drive users to adjust the way they think about sharing and moving things around. For example, these are two consequences that make sense in this new paradigm, but that you never had to think about previously:

  • If you are the owner of a file in Drive and move it from your Drive to a shared folder where you’re a recipient (and not the owner), that file will no longer be yours still be yours but it won’t be saved in your Drive. You’re still in control of access privileges and can move it out, and if the owner of the shared folder deletes that folder, your file gets repatriated back to your Drive.
  • If the owner of a shared folder gave you the privilege to move things around, and you move a file from the shared folder to your Drive, people it’s shared with will lose access. The file no longer obeys to the rule of sharing from its parent folder because it’s no longer there.

Drive will warn you about these, but you may click without reading the warning or realizing what it means.

How this translates to your computer

Now think of those files and folders that you choose to sync locally to your computer. If you have a PC or Mac, you probably use Google’s Backup and Sync to make some or all of your Drive directly accessible from your file browser.

With shortcuts, Google-type files (like Google Docs, Sheets, Slides) and non-Google-type files are both unaffected when syncing locally. The former require you to be online regardless if it’s a proper file or a shortcut, and the latter get synced even if they’re shortcuts.

The last point needs to be further clarified because it surprised me. Say someone shared with me a “Shared Excel.xlsx” file. From Google Drive web, I created a shortcut for that file in my Drive. I then opened the Drive folder on my PC and saw that the file was fully synced, not as a shortcut, but in its entirety. This was unexpectedly nice. Just to be sure, I turned off internet access, and opened the file. Everything worked. Any changes I made were synced once I came back online.

Recipient’s end: Shared Excel (full file), Google Doc (shortcut, doesn’t matter), and folder (shortcut).

Folders are ruined

However, look at that received folder. It’s a simple .gshortcut link. I can’t open it like any other folder, can’t look inside, can’t sync anything in it.

If I go offline and try to open it, I get hit by the Chrome dino. I have zero access to anything in it. The fact that it shows up as a shared shortcut in my file browser is all I get from it. It’s barely a reminder that there’s a folder, somewhere, that someone shared with me.

When I’m offline, this is what I see of the shared folder.

Note that this happens even though Backup and Sync is set up to sync everything on my PC. There’s no setting to sync shared folders, and even if I switch to “Sync only these folders,” the shortcut folder doesn’t show up in the list. It’s just not recognized as a folder. The whole problem would go away if it were.

Now imagine you’re a member of a family, small team, or any group that relies on shared folders in Google Drive. The owner of a folder keeps going as normal, everyone else:

  • needs to be online to see what’s inside the folder and which modifications other users have made
  • can’t have the files inside the folder sync automatically in the background to their computer, so they don’t have easy access to the latest version
  • has to manually download any non-Google-type file every time to view it or edit it, then upload it again (Google-type files are unaffected because they get edited live)
  • has to go to the Drive website to move a local file from their computer into the shared folder — they can’t do it from their file browser, which was possible before
  • also has to go to the Drive website to move a Drive file that they own into that shared folder. But when the changes sync locally to their computer, that file, which was on their machine, is gone, poof, deleted. It’s only accessible from that dang folder shortcut. On the web, it’s clear that they’re still the owner, but locally, that doesn’t matters very little because the file now belongs to another structure. Edit: See the “Interesting side effects” section above for more info.

In fewer words, local access for folders is utterly nerfed.

This is mindboggling. No other cloud storage service and sync app does things this way, as far as I know. Dropbox, One Drive, and others simply treat folders as folders. What’s inside shows up on your computer, regardless if you’re the owner or recipient. All changes sync. Everything is accessible offline.

Tedious workaround… and not even

The only way I found to circumvent this shared folder limitation on my PC was to open the folder in Google Drive web and create individual shortcuts for every file inside my Drive. That way I’m dealing with shortcuts to files and not folders, which are more lenient as I explained earlier with the “Shared Excel.xlsx” story. Edit: Google even recommends this as an “alternative” in its documentation. 

The issue with this workaround, beside how tedious it is to basically recreate the initial shared folder structure on your end with individual file shortcuts, is that any files that get added later by anyone (owner, me, or other people) won’t sync, and any folder structure change won’t sync. I’d have to go and double check things every now and then to make sure I’m not missing anything.

Chrome OS and Android are largely unaffected

Chrome OS only has one limitation

I tested the same shared files and folders on my Pixelbook and noticed that things remain largely the same. I can still open shortcuts of shared folders and see their content without being redirected to Drive on the web.

Top: Shared folder and files inside my Drive. Bottom: Opening the shared folder shortcut to see its content.

I can also make everything available offline, except Google-type files (Docs, Sheets, Slides). That includes folders too. However, there’s one restriction: I can’t move a file from my Drive or my computer into the shared folder shortcut. This used to be possible before with regular shared folders. I need to go to Drive on the web to upload any file to this shared folder.

Top: Making a folder available offline. Bottom: Can’t move a file to a shared folder shortcut.

Finally, if I try to move a file from inside a shared folder to my Drive, it creates a copy and keeps the original. You may recall that on the web, it lets me move it but warns me that I’m about to take access away from other people.

Shush… Android still lets you properly move shared folders

It’s not a secret anymore, but if you want to avoid this silliness for the next few months until September 2020, then I have a small tip for you. Moving shared folders properly to your Google Drive is still possible in the Android app. I’m using Drive v2.20.121.04 and it’s there, but it could be removed in a later version, so here’s the APK file if you want to install it manually. It should still work until Google ruins things by changing all folders to shortcuts on the server’s end in September. Edit: See update note at the end of the post for a similar solution from the web.

In the Android app, go to the sharing tab (third tab) and tap the three-dot menu on the right of any received file or folder. Scroll down and look for the Move option, below Add shortcut to my Drive. It’s surprising that the shortcut menu was renamed, like on the web, but the move option isn’t gone as it is there. Oh well, Google’s inconsistency is helpful for once.

 

The menu for shared files/folders still includes the “Move” option.

This lets you replicate the old behavior of shared files and folders. In the screenshots below, you can see the new shortcuts as well as duplicates without the shortcut icon. On mobile, there’s no difference really, but these shared folders will behave like real folders on your computer, with full local access, and this is how you circumvent the issue… temporarily.

Left: Shared files and folders as shortcuts. Right: By using the “Move” option, I get dupes that aren’t shortcuts.

Beside this quirky omission on Google’s end, things are relatively unchanged on Android, even when dealing with shortcuts. You can make files available offline (whether Google-type or non-Google-type), but not folders — though you can manually make all files inside a folder offline. Notice how this is different from Chrome OS, where folders can be made offline, but Google-type files can’t. Each time I think I’m done with the discrepancies, I discover a new one.

You can move or upload files to a shared folder shortcut, which doesn’t matter on mobile but will affect your access if you sync to your computer. You can also move files outside of a shared folder, but like on the web, this removes access from everyone else.

1800 words and dozens of inconsistencies and surprises later, it’s abundantly clear that this shortcut change isn’t benign. Essentially, we went from “this is a folder, I shared it, done,” to a confusing mess and shortcut system that took me hours to untangle… and I think I didn’t uncover all the issues yet. It’s so confusing that at first we thought this whole situation was a bug, but we reached out to Google which confirmed to us that this is expected behavior.

Now imagine having to explain all of this to your family or friends or team members (in the latter case, if you’re not using Share Drives and File Stream): “Well, Joe, no, you can’t see the monthly Excel report on your PC because it’s inside the folder shortcut. No, it doesn’t sync to your computer, it’s a folder but not a folder. Just click it. Yes, the file is there in Chrome (eye roll). Wait, Joe, did you move the file out? Now everyone lost access. Dammit Joe! Move it back. OK, now download it. I know, it makes no sense. Please don’t touch anything from your computer or phone. You have two days to add your division’s numbers into the sheet that you downloaded. When you’re done, upload the new version. I know, it doesn’t make sense either. Yeah, we’ll look into getting an Office 365 license next month.”

Comparatively, every other cloud storage service out there still treats folders as folders and manages to do this without complaining about duplicate files and sharing privileges.

Even though I understand how things are easier on Google’s end with this new approach, the ramifications (though mostly logical) are simply too confusing. Layer after layer, I laughingly wondered if an engineer designed this system and thought it made perfect sense, but forgot that regular users would have to adopt it. Or maybe the Drive devs forgot that PCs and Macs exist, and thought everyone has access to a Chromebook with a fast internet connection all the time. It could also be a conspiracy theory to discourage the usage of non-Google Docs/Sheets/Slides files in Drive, because those files are the most affected when they’re inside shared folders.


Google’s Remy Burger, this post has been updated to reword and clarify a few points, specifically regarding file ownership and consequences for companies and G Suite users. Remy also shared with us a workaround and the Drive team’s longterm plan.

First, you can still move shared files and folders to your Drive, even on the web (no need for the Android app), but the option is hidden behind a keyboard shortcut. Go to your Shared with me section, highlight the shared files or folders you want to move, and type Shift+Z on your keyboard. You’ll see the old move menu and can choose where to put those folders. On your PC, they’ll sync and behave like they used to, no shortcut mess. More info can be found here, and you can always type ? in Drive to bring up the list of keyboard shortcuts if you forget this one.

Shift+Z brings up the old Move menu, letting you add shared folders to your Drive.

Finally, Remy revealed that the Drive team will “keep this behavior [Shift+Z] around for folders until we have a solid solution to sync shared folders.” I think that helps appease our collective fears about the change. As I mentioned earlier in the post, a lot of issues would be solved once Google’s Backup and Sync started recognizing shortcuts as folders and synced them as such. You’ll still need to explain to others how the change affects where files “are” and how sharing privileges can be revoked if they move a file out inadvertently, but the bulk of our complaints about this new system will be gone. Hopefully, Google figures out a solution for syncing shared folders quickly.