Remember those awkward teenage years when you were no longer a child but not quite an adult? That is where Box finds itself today, as it matures from a cloud based file storage and sharing company to one that is facing the expectations and challenges of adolescence. Last week at their annual BoxWorks conference, in front of 5000+ customers, partners, press and analysts Box set out to answer the life defining questions, "What do I want to be when I grow up? What do I want to do with my life?"
For Box the answers are starting to take shape, as they work to shed the image of "file sync and share" (which is a very crowded market) by focusing product development and marketing on what they call "content-centric collaboration'". Below I'll explain what that means, but if you don't have to time to read any further then here's my main take away:
"Box is no longer simply a product, but instead a platform for building applications that leverage content at the center of their process or workflow."
What We Did Hear
1) Box + Office365: people will be able to roundtrip edit and store documents between Box and Office365
My Point of View (MyPOV): Box began by promoting themselves as an alternative to Microsoft SharePoint. Back in the old SharePoint on premises days, Box had a very competitive "cloud-alternative" story. Fast forward to today, and Microsoft has quite a compelling cloud portfolio in Office 365 and Microsoft One Drive. I'm glad to see that Box has realized they need to integrate with, not compete against Microsoft.
2) Box Notes: usability and feature improvements, including the addition of tables
MyPOV: Box Notes provides a very simple online word processor which enables teams to work on a document at the same time. This is much more effective than having people update a document with their comments or revisions and then upload a new revision. At this time Box Notes is still very simple and not a competitor to Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Still, the addition of tables provides some much needed structure, enabling people to create rows and columns of data which will lead to more advanced uses of Box Notes.
3) Box Preview: The addition of annotations, meaning you can add comments anywhere on the document, picture or slide.
MyPOV: I'd much rather it be named Box Viewer, but that's not my call! Annotations are going to be a great addition to the collaborative functionality of Box, as in place comments are much more useful than just having a series of discussions along the side of the page with no link to what they are referring to. Note: this is not unique as products like Convo have had this for a long time. I'd love to see Box acquire a company like Convo and improve not just their annotations capabilities, but their enterprise social networking / newsfeed capabilities as well.
4) Box Workflow: This is the bringing together of policies, rules and metadata. The simple explanation is that administrators will have the ability to define rules that perform actions when certain events occur. For example, if a file is placed in a certain folder, assign a task. Or, if a file contains a credit card number, place it in a quarantine directory for approval.
MyPOV: The was originally announced at BoxWorks 2013 and after the event I blogged about how significant this is. In this first release the actions and triggers are pretty simple. Box does plan on providing more advanced features like conditional branching in the future. Metadata, or the addition of custom fields to a form is a very significant step in defining the future of Box as a platform for building applications. I will cover this in more detail below, and in even more detail in an upcoming Constellation Research paper.
5) Box for Industries: Box will be selling solutions tailored for specific industries; starting with Retail, Healthcare and Media and Entertainment.
MyPOV: One of Box's strengths as a company has been hiring people in sales and product design who have deep understanding of specific industries. That means, when Box engages with customers in industries like Healthcare, Finance, or Legal they are able to understand their needs and propose appropriate solutions. The addition of specific product offerings tailored for industries mirrors the go-to market strategies of software giants like IBM, SAP, Oracle and Infor.
What We Didn't Hear
I was disappointed that Box did not make any announcements in the following areas:
1) Analytics and Insight: Given last year's acquisition of DLoop, I had hoped to see some features from Box that provide at least the most basic look into the people and content in your network. Currently regular Box users (not admins) cannot see things like Most Downloaded files, Most Active Conversations, Most Liked Content, etc. Box also lacks and recommendation features linking similar type of documents together. For example: If you're reading this page about bikes, you may also want to read this page. By comparison, Microsoft has put a great deal of work into their Office Graph and Delve products, which enable people to easily see the most important and relevant people and content.
2) No Improvements In the Activity Stream (social) or a Welcome Page/Dashboard: One of my biggest complaints about the Box User Experience is that it is very hard to see what is happening in your network. For the most part, Box's UI is just a series of folders and files. When I log onto Box (web or mobile) I'd like to be presented with a personal dashboard that shows me what my colleagues are doing, events that have taken place around my content, what new content is available, and a whole lot more. This dashboard should offer a variety of sorting, filtering and notification options. Today Box is essentially just File Manager (Window) or Finder (Mac) in the cloud. I'd like to see it be much more of a destination for getting work done.
3) No Improvement In Task Management: Box enables people to assign to-dos to files, but the task management features pretty much end there. They do partner with several Task Management tools such as Asana, AtTask, Azendoo, Clarizen, LiquidPlanner, Wrike and others but I'd like to see more native functionality. At a minimum, show me a view of my tasks, with the ability to sort on date and status. Ideally, purchase one of these vendors and offer great project management capabilities.
The Road Ahead. Platform, Not Product.
More important than any one product announcement is the larger picture of Box's overall goal. To discuss that, let's start with looking at what Box does:
In the most simple form Box enables people to store files on the internet so that they are accessible at any time from a variety of devices.
While simply storing and sharing files on the Internet instead of on a local hard-drive has value, the true benefits become more apparent when those files are shared as part of a business process. Some examples include: Sharing an RFP contract between a customer and a company; doctors discussing an X-ray; Marketing sharing product images; or Finance collaborating on invoicing data.
But what if instead of Box being a part of a process, Box actually became the platform for building the application that handles the entire process? That's what Box is hoping to become. In this scenario, instead of an insurance company using an application that simply links to a claim form that is stored in Box, the insurance company would develop an web or mobile application that uses the file storage and display capabilities of Box. Similarly, instead of using medical software and then linking to a file stored in Box, imagine doctors and clinicians collaborating on medical images or videos using web or mobile applications that leveraged Box's security, storage, sharing and collaboration features.
That is precisely what Box Business Partner Novacoast has done with Full Resolution Health, an application that parents and clinicians can use to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of autism. Via a mobile application, parents can upload videos of their children, and then clinicians access and assess those videos on the web. At no time does either party know that they are using Box.
MyPOV: I'm glad to see Box looking at a much broader market than just storing, sharing and syncing files. Box is building a large ecosystem of business partners and independent developers, which is a good sign of a growing and popular platform, as these folks tend to go where the opportunity (i.e. money) is.
For the time being, competitors like Google Drive and Microsoft One Drive are not focusing their go-to market strategies on a similar application development story. However, Box is not alone in this space. Salesforce offers a compelling platform in SalesForce1 and Salesforce Files and Amazon's Web Services, a dominant platform for developers, has recently announced their own integrated file sharing service named Zocalo. Microsoft has a huge partner ecosystem that could start to take advantage of OneDrive. Box's main startup competitor DropBox also had a large partner ecosystem, and is starting to convert some of their massive consumer following into enterprise (business) customers. Finally, IBM should not be discounted with their BlueMix development platform, SoftLayer cloud infrastructure, and Connections collaboration and file sharing capabilities.
In an upcoming Constellation Research Report we'll be taking a deeper look at Box's workflow features including Policies and Automation, and metadata.
Alan is Vice President and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research, Inc. focusing on enterprise collaboration software. Prior to joining Constellation, Alan spent 3 years as Director of Marketing at Socialtext and before that, 14 years in a variety of roles at IBM/Lotus. He's an active blogger and speaker in the "Enterprise 2.0/Social Business" community, where he shares his thoughts on the business benefits of open communication and collaboration.