Rounded-out Box squares up to enterprise

Filesharing-to-collaboration cloud apps vendor Box epitomises how cloud apps are growing up to become enterprise-grade. Despite the rounded corners on the company's cuddly brand image, it has had to sharpen up to become a fit for the square hole that is enterprise computing.

If you want to find an archetypal story of how cloud apps are growing up to become enterprise-grade, look no further than last week's announcement of a new look for Box. The freshly named Box has shaken off a lot more than its .net suffix, and in the process it's demonstrating the journey that many of its cloud compatriots will have to go through to win lasting approval from enterprise buyers. Despite the rounded corners on the company's cuddly brand image, it has had to sharpen up to become a fit for the square hole that is enterprise computing.

In terms of core functionality, the additions that Box has made in this release remain true to its populist take on information sharing. Box started out as a way to share files via the cloud. This week's release moves it firmly beyond its humble file-sharing roots to add various mechanisms for collaborating around those files. These collaborative features will appeal to enterpise users but they're framed in very populist idioms. So the new realtime activity notifications are presented in a Facebook-like way, while the infrastructure they run on is based on the open-source Tornado Web Server created by Friendfeed's developers. There's a new discussions tab — "a pretty significant step for us," CEO Aaron Levie told me last week — as well as a panel that shows contextually relevant other content from within the same Box domain, which strikes me as a huge boon for group productivity.

"We're very focused on a particular type of collaboration," Levie specified to me. Box's enterprise customers are organizations with a lot of content to share and work on. But enabling that collaboration in such a consumer-friendly way gives the company justification to take swipes at Sharepoint, which it characterizes as bloated, slow-moving and complex to implement. "Microsoft is already working on versions of the product you won't see for a couple years — these are slow cycles," said Levie at last week's launch. Box now has the chops to play in the big league. It boasts five million users, 10,000 enterprise accounts, 99.98% uptime over the past year and over a petabyte of storage under management. It's part of a wave that, as I've written before, goes beyond consumerization into democratizing enterprise IT — by delivering easy-to-use, adaptable tools into the hands of grassroots business users.

At the same time, of course, any application that wants to appeal to enterprise IT buyers has to transcend a consumerist approach and earn its stripes by addressing issues that are inevitably more complex in an enterprise environment, such as provisioning, governance, integration and change management.

Box has added better user management in this release. It's also taken the interesting step of becoming one of the first apps selected for VMWare's Project Horizon, which aims to provide a single sign-on environment for both on-premise and cloud apps. "We're just really excited to be the content launch partner for this," Levie told me. Whether Horizon will work out is moot, but Box's involvement will give it useful, early insight into the practical mechanics of single sign-on and access rights management within an enterprise environment where cloud and on-premise apps are mixed together.

Adding an apps marketplace (and an apps tab) for apps that connect to Box content is a clever move that allows the vendor to forge alliances with like-minded vendors. This is an important complement to the social collaboration features mentioned above, which as I've said in the past, need to allow collaboration across different application platforms. I'm intrigued to see that Box content can be integrated into Salesforce.com Chatter streams. I'm also pleased to see process-level integration in the form of, for example, Box's partnership with DocuSign, which adds electronic signature processes to Box-hosted documents.

The last component of Box's transformation is its continuing adoption of mobile platforms. This is an area where the superior agility of cloud applications pays dividends over on-premise rivals, both for vendors and for their customers. Box has already seen more than 300,000 downloads of its app for Apple's iOS platform, and 70,000 for the more recently released Android app. Increasingly, mobile will become the premier client platform for large numbers of users, so it's significant that a number of mobile app developers have already chosen to use Box as a backend document store. Although the mobile client is behind the curve for new features — it will get discussions soon while other components introduced to the new browser UI will come to mobile later on — the user-friendly, consumerist focus of Box's development efforts will help it keep pace with the demands of mobile users in the enterprise.