How much is Box starting to look like SharePoint?

At its recent BoxWorks conference, Box showed off a range of new features that it's planning to add to the service, and to the apps you use it with. They're not guaranteed to show up, but take a look at the list and see if they seem familiar.

Organizing files by metadata: Box will soon let you create custom columns using the metadata in files, and you'll be able to use that metadata to filter what files are listed. So if you have documents that are part of a project and you're adding the status of each document in the project, you can filter the list to only show the documents that correspond to tasks you haven't yet completed, or you can show just the contracts and not the invoices.

You will also be able to use metadata to create smart collections, so you could create a collection that shows you all the contracts that are within three months of expiring. If any of that sounds familiar, think back to the extensible schemas planned for WinFS (Microsoft's never-delivered object file system) that ended up in SQL Server and, to a certain extent, SharePoint. To be fair, if you think about how to organize, categorize and collect information, at some point you're almost bound to reinvent some of the principles of WinFS; Microsoft has, many times.

See also: Box expands Box Zones, sees strong demand | Box leads Amazon, Microsoft in cloud storage satisfaction survey | Box integrates with Google Docs, Springboard | Box aims to beef up analytics offerings with Wagon acquisition

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Using metadata like that will work even better once Box is able to look inside files and categorise them automatically. The service already scans files as you upload them to index text for search, but the plan is to use machine learning to spot what type of document you're uploading -- a contract, an invoice, a resumé, a non-disclosure agreement, an order, a white paper or anything else. Box has a large corpus of documents already, so it can use those for comparison and to train the system. Image recognition will tag photos (the way OneDrive and Google already do). It looks like there might even be a category showing what sentiment IBM Watson thinks the document expresses (so you could search for 'complaint letter' rather than remembering the file name.

Entities

Box is also hoping to go a step further and work out what the entities mentioned in a file are and how they're connected -- the company you sign the NDA with or send the invoice to, or the person you're dealing with for example.

Entities are the latest thing in useful ways of thinking about business. Salesforce Einstein and Dynamics 365 are going to pluck entities out of customer records and sales opportunities to spot when someone mentions a competitor, so that the sales team or customer support know they're not your only option. The pattern of entities that make up companies, departments, jobs, skills and connections are the relationship network graph for which Microsoft is buying LinkedIn. But while Salesforce will have to extract entities from the details of businesses and customer records that it has in its many customer accounts, and Box will have to scrape it out of documents, Microsoft has a head-start with Bing, which has been building a huge database of all kinds of entities for years. Entities are how Bing gets the right kind of links for your search and they're how it can show instant answers to more and more questions without you having to follow any of those links. They're not something that's showing up in SharePoint much, but they're key in Dynamics, Delve Analytics and Outlook. When Outlook spots that you have a flight reservation and adds it to your calendar automatically, it's finding entities like the airline and the flight number in that message. Look for this kind of smart use of entities to start showing up all over the place.

Box is planning another clever feature for 2017, with the slightly disturbing name of Box Renditions; this takes a file that you put into Box and turns it into something else -- that could be watermarking video, recognising images and OCRing any text in them (something OneNote can already do for OneDrive and SharePoint), or turning a Word document into speech.

A much simpler feature will come in very handy: when someone shares a file with you and then removes the file before you manage to look at it, there's a button you can click that sends a message asking them to let you see the file after all. Yes, you could reply to the email or message where they sent you the link (assuming you kept it and didn't copy the link somewhere else), but it's far easier to click in the same dialog that says you don't have access to the file.

Another planned feature is a smart search that Outlook users will recognise, but for far more than 'email messages in the last week that have attachments'. You'll be able to quickly retrieve files in useful chunks like 'Office files I uploaded yesterday' or 'Photos I uploaded last month'.

Box is planning to add translation of documents you save in the cloud, and you might be able to translate comments and chats that you have about files. SharePoint is getting a similar translation features soon.

More on Sharepoint: Microsoft delivers preview of OneDrive-SharePoint Online sync | Microsoft delivers promised SharePoint mobile app for iOS | Microsoft to add new SMB apps to Office 365 Business Premium plan

Box is also planning to add a feature that's been very useful in Word: a side by side view of the differences between two versions of a document -- but you'll get it when you preview a document rather than having to open it.

Box is adding rich previews for 360 video and 3D models (OneDrive and SharePoint are just about to get rich previews for Adobe files, including Illustrator (.ai), Photoshop (.psd) and Encapsulated PostScript (.eps), email files (.msg and .eml), more photo formats (including many RAW formats) and streaming video).

Box/Microsoft interoperability

Some of the loudest applause at the Box sneak peek session was for the new Excel preview, which looks remarkably like Excel Online (because it's powered by Microsoft's Excel REST API). That's going to be useful even with the integration that's coming with the Office Online apps in Office 365, because the preview will still give you full-fidelity preview of your spreadsheet even if you don't have Office 365.

Box and Microsoft have a lot of common customers who do have Office 365 though. They'll like the custom tile they'll get in Office 365 to see the files they have stored in Box that they can open in Office Online.

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The Box tiles you'll see in the Office 365 apps list.

Image: Mary Branscombe

And from the Box end of things, you'll be able to open a file straight into Office Online, or create a new Office Online file that will get saved on Box, directly from the Box web interface.

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Create a new Office Online file inside Box.

Image: Mary Branscombe
office-online-inside-box.png

Without leaving the Box site, you're using PowerPoint Online to edit your presentation.

Image: Mary Branscombe

You'll also be able to create custom portals in Box that use Office Online to open documents without anyone being able to see that they're stored on Box. A business or a college could create a site where customers or students can preview and annotate documents, or open them in Office Online for editing, and it will all look as if it's happening on the organisation's own site.

SharePoint-style features

The most SharePoint-like features might be the team workflow tools, which get new options, and the new Box Relay, which IBM is helping to build. Team workflow lets you do simple things like starting a workflow to approve an expense request every time you upload a geotagged photo of a receipt. Box Relay adds forms where you can specify a lot more information to use in the workflow, that you can use to apply metadata or start other workflows.

The second-loudest applause was for another familiar SharePoint feature: more admin controls. There's a new admin console that will let you control access, and next year admins will be able to delegate adding external users to Box groups to the managers whose group it is.

This isn't Box copying SharePoint though; this is the natural evolution of tools that you use to make documents available to teams of people.

It's worth remembering that in the beginning, SharePoint was shadow IT that spread virally because it gave teams a way to get work done together that IT-managed file shares simply didn't. Cloud sharing services like Box were able to get a foothold by offering the next generation of users a solution that let them share, only this time it was often people outside the company they needed to collaborate with. Once those cloud solutions get adopted widely, IT will need tools to monitor and administer and control them, because once entire business processes are going through a workflow built by the people in the team who do the job, their managers need to be able to track it and the compliance team needs to be able to report on it, at which point things start to look at lot like SharePoint.

Box would argue that it doesn't have the disadvantages of SharePoint. What that means for a lot of businesses is that it doesn't have the legacy and expectations of SharePoint, or the cruft that accretes to a platform over a decade and more of upgrades and updates and changes in strategy. Microsoft would doubtless argue that the latest version of SharePoint doesn't have the disadvantages of older versions, unless customers insist on dragging those along for the ride (although it would be phrased more politely and with more understanding of how hard it can be to get here from there).

The goal for Box -- and for SharePoint -- is to make the admin features comprehensive without letting them cripple the useful features, and to keep on adding useful functionality that takes advantage of new technology to make user's lives easier. You can't rely on the gravity of documents to keep users on a document system that's full of their old documents when a new platform beats it on features. Which means we can expect Box and SharePoint to carry on looking more similar than either Box or Microsoft might like to admit, even though they're fundamentally different. It also means that Box has definitely grown up from a cloud storage system to a document management tool.

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