Last Friday I wrote about how when I attempted to put Dropbox on a computer I was testing, Dropbox informed me that I could only sync two computers. But there was a puzzle: no-one else had noticed. Now I know why: it turns out that I’m an experimental subject!

When you’re a tech company with many millions of customers, you can do something which hasn’t really been possible in the past: you can scientifically test possible changes before rolling them out. If you’re a car manufacturer and you think changing the position of the company logo on the boot of the car might help sales, you just go ahead and do it. But you’ll never know whether it boosted sales, made no difference, or perhaps even reduced sales.

But if you’re Facebook with 1.71 billion active customers, and you’re thinking about ways of increasing sales through advertising on your users’ pages, you can test. Test quite scientifically. Google, Facebook and others – even relatively “small” players such as Quora (the question and answer site) with its one hundred million monthly unique visitors – employ people to do just this. Perhaps a font change will increase advertising revenue. How can you tell? Randomly select a hundred thousand customers and apply it to them, and measure what happens by comparison to a control group of another hundred thousand. Instead of making changes based on a hunch and having no idea whether they were worth making at all, well designed experiments can give companies real information about whether something should be done.

Now consider Dropbox. It is said to have some half a billion users as of March this year. There are basically three kinds of users: business users who pay for the service, private users who also pay, and those like me who use the free service.

The new Dropbox limit, for some of us

The new Dropbox limit, for some of us

I have no idea what the figures are, but I’d guess the great majority are free users. I’ve already noted that I reckon I’ve gotten thousands of dollars of value from my Dropbox account over the years, as must have many others. So it’s not at all unreasonable that Dropbox would like to nudge some of them towards a paid subscription. With that comes a terabyte of cloud storage instead of two gigabytes, and a restoration of the ability to sync an unlimited number of computers.

But these days, you don’t just jump in and do it. You test it first.

I’d guess my email to Dropbox on Friday and my subsequent discussions with its PR firm led to a busy weekend for some of its employees. Sorry guys! As of this morning a Dropbox spokesperson informs me:

Dropbox is exploring promotional pricing options for a number of users. This is a promotional plan aimed at a small set of users in Australia. We’ve randomly assigned this experiment to a small set of our local user base. We’re listening closely to our users’ feedback on these changes, and will factor it into our future product offerings.

Translation: they are seeing if this change will translate to a shift of some of the free user base to paid users, whether that’s worth while in terms of possible complaints (little generates complaints like changing a free service to a paid one) or loss of subscribers and so on.

I for one can’t begrudge Dropbox trying to capture a portion of the value it has been giving away these past few years. But, be warned: the results of this experiment will feed into the company’s future practices. It may be a forewarning of a widespread change. Or it might all peter out if the results of the experiment suggest it’s not worth it.

Over the weekend Dropbox updated its help system to correctly reflect the new policy

Over the weekend Dropbox updated its help system to correctly reflect the new policy

Of course, this might not be the only experiment it’s conducting. It wants me to upgrade to a $13.99 per month subscription. That’s too rich for me, so I’ll be migrating to OneDrive for which I already have a subscription. But I’d be surprised if other subjects of the experiment weren’t given the chance to upgrade at different amounts to see if there’s a sweet pricing spot.

Note: the two computer limit is just that: two computers. You can also have an unlimited number of mobile devices synced on Dropbox Basic.

One final word, and this speaks well of Dropbox. The great majority of my tech writing this past five years has passed through my Dropbox account. Yet Dropbox selected me as a subject for its experiment. That suggests that it had no idea of my occupation (thus drawing what seems to have been unwanted coverage), which means it hasn’t looked at any of my documents within its custody.

UPDATE 10 October 2016: Dropbox has responded with a subtler position than I expected. Read it all here.