Building a platform for files in the cloud

Microsoft, Google, Box, Huddle, Dropbox ... who will dominate the enterprise market for cloud-based file storage and collaboration?
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Last month, Rory O'Driscoll of Scale Venture Partners, an investor in cloud collaboration vendor Box, wrote a guest article on GigaOm about Files in the cloud: feature, product or company?. I bookmarked the article because of his arresting contention that, far from merely selling a feature that sooner or later will get absorbed into other offerings, cloud storage vendors like Box, Dropbox and others are competing to capture what will become "multi-billion-dollar software markets for cloud-based file systems." As file storage moves to the cloud — both for consumers and enterprises — the platforms they use will become increasingly fundamental components of mainstream computing.

Who are the candidates to become leaders of this lucrative new market? For sure, they will have to do more than merely offer file storage. In this posting, I'll be looking at the enterprise opportunity, but the consumer market offers some illuminating pointers in the way it has coalesced around providers that offer sharing and context rather than raw storage, such as Flickr, Facebook and Pinterest. Thinking about it, this stands to reason: if you're going to store stuff, wouldn't you want to store it in context, where it can make sense not only to you but also the people you know? The same is likely true when it comes to enterprise file storage.

Looking at the cloud-based file system vendors that are getting established in the enterprise market, a similar pattern emerges. With the exception of Dropbox (which continues to take babysteps in this direction), they have all built storage into (or, as in the case of Box, have built around storage) a collaboration framework that offers sharing and context.

The newly launched preview of Microsoft Office 2013 installs SkyDrive as its default cloud-based file system, and with the completion of the Yammer acquisition will doubtless wrap messaging around it too. Box is constantly emphasizing its enterprise collaboration credentials. Another contender, Huddle, last week fused its collaboration and content functions into a more streamlined, single view. Google Drive recently became the new home for document storage in Google Apps. Since I'm a user, in various ways, of all five of these competing file systems, it struck me this might be a good moment to take a snapshot of how I feel each of them is doing.

Dropbox. In common with many small businesses, I've come to rely on Dropbox. Yet I constantly have this nagging feeling that Dropbox is an accident waiting to happen. I suspect it's the same for every other Dropbox business user. We love the convenience, but it doesn't offset this vague sense of unease we all feel. For many, the unease revolves around security worries, though to its credit Dropbox last week demonstrated how seriously it takes security threats. My personal worry centers on synchronization, because it only takes one tiny glitch to start corrupting everyone's files, and when an entire team is sharing files, that becomes a big exposure. I'm sure the Dropbox team keeps this risk firmly locked down, and it's one that equally affects every cloud-based file system that relies on sync. It's just my personal Dropbox niggle.

Verdict: Used everywhere but readily displaced. Light on collaboration features though I should add I haven't experienced Dropbox for Teams.

Microsoft Office 2013 and SkyDrive. After installing the new customer preview of Office 2013 last week, I see SkyDrive has appeared on my computer's list of favorite locations. As I wrote last week, the allure of being able to work on documents while I move from machine to machine is pretty compelling, especially if Office 2013 can actually put me back in the exact place I was at in the document. While some purists might argue that a productivity app that runs locally isn't a cloud app, my perspective is that, if it's managed from the cloud and stores the data in the cloud, the local instance is just an extension of the cloud (a philosophy that you might call services-plus-software, but it would be cruel to Microsoft to say I told you so). Unfortunately, this carefree cloud-centric existence starts to pall when you want to share those documents with other people. Microsoft can't yet shake off its on-premise legacy as a conventional software company. It wants businesses to continue to license Exchange and SharePoint along with the rest of its enterprise server family, for the purpose of which it has introduced the ominously named SkyDrive Pro. How exactly everything will mesh together isn't clear, but if past experience is anything to go by, it will involve much grinding of gears and gnashing of teeth.

Verdict:Microsoft has a huge user base and Office 2013 is a bold step towards a cloud-based future. But the legacy installed base of on-premise server products still exerts a stifling deadweight on agility.

Google Apps and Google Drive. Although seen as the big challenger to Microsoft Office, there are two problems I find with Google Apps. First of all, the applications are superb for collaborative drafting, but they don't have the sophistication for advanced work. So, for example, you might share a Google spreadsheet to track some figures with a colleague, but you'll revert to Excel if you want to do a proper revenue projection. Similarly with documents — I've tried to collaborate on white papers in Google Apps and it's not up to the task past a certain point. This lack of completeness creates the second problem, which is the substandard integration between different components. In theory, Google Sites ought to be a great platform for bringing people together on a project, for example, but in practice most of the time it's simply too much hard work.

Verdict:A proper cloud-native suite, but lacks polish. I haven't tested the Google Drive download so I can't comment on the syncing.

Box. Box provides a strong collaboration environment around uploaded files and, perhaps because it attempts less than Google's mishmash of functionality, presents a more polished interface. There's a big opportunity for companies like Box to become the cloud collaboration and storage platform that works best for Microsoft Office users (perhaps Google Apps users too). If you want enterprise-class security and control for less money than Microsoft will charge and more polish than Google can muster, Box is good value-for-money. A further plus is that it integrates well with other leading cloud platforms such as Salesforce.com, NetSuite and Google Apps. It has really good mobile support, too.

Verdict: A true cloud-native platform that is doing a strong job of leveraging the cloud ecosystem. I'm basing this on what others have told me as I use Box least out of the five so can't judge in detail.

Huddle. I've watched this company develop over the past five years and I'm mighty impressed by its progress, especially in the past year. It's getting to the point where, each time I start to feel it could be improved in some way, the company comes out and announces that function. I've become a more active user since Huddle provided an instance for the board of EuroCloud Europe to use (of which I'm a volunteer officer). A particular strength is the enterprise-aware way it has implemented syncing to local disk, which gives this platform Dropbox-like functionality without the niggles. Mobile support is strong, too, with well-designed iPhone and iPad apps.

Verdict: A strong cloud-native platform with distinctive enterprise appeal. Its sync technology, workflow and mobile are strong assets and make it especially popular with Office users.

Zoho ought to be on this list, but I have no direct experience as a user so can't comment.

Apple iCloud is not on this list because it isn't an enterprise contender.

The strength of the field substantiates O'Driscoll's contention that cloud-based file storage and collaboration is becoming a significant platform category and a huge market opportunity. While it's too early to name the winners, the leading contenders are starting to emerge. Did I miss any others? Do you agree with my assessments? Join the discussion in TalkBack below.

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