It is not longer a question of “if” the consumerization trends behind cloud file sharing will compete with traditional Enterprise Content Management (ECM). It is a simple matter of “when” and when is 2014.
That was the impression Info-Tech analysts Tim Hickernell and Ben Dickie came away with from the recent BoxWorks conference in San Francisco. BoxWorks is an annual conference held by Box, a leading cloud file sharing vendor focused on the enterprise
Info-Tech has been covering cloud file sharing for two years now and has predicted the technology’s ability to be a disruptive technology for traditional ECM and collaboration platforms, especially Microsoft’s SharePoint. To date, we have advocated complementary co-existence with collaboration platforms and mid-range ECM like SharePoint. However new features announced at BoxWorks 2013, such as metadata support, lightweight workflow rules, high fidelity viewers and basic document creation/authoring, raise the stakes and clearly indicate that in some cases, enterprises can replace or use Box in lieu of SharePoint for common document collaboration use cases.
Microsoft’s goal was indeed to democratize ECM for the masses by giving away entry level SharePoint and exploiting it as a Loss-Leader for add-ons and to further nurture the Microsoft development community. They believed that “free” would lower the entry barriers so as to ensure IT adoption and knowledge worker acceptance.
They were wrong.
While IT rushed to embrace SharePoint as a content sharing platform, after 10 years it is clear that knowledge workers have rejected the complex content management metaphors and lack of time, place and device ubiquity that it offers. Despite the inelegance and lack of manageability with simple file folder hierarchies, knowledge workers understand folders and don’t need help from IT to use them for business value. Add cloud ubiquity to the mix and it’s all but over. Cloud file sharing vendors have won over the average knowledge worker and consumerization of IT is once again democratizing another well-established business application domain, this time ECM.
Box is already the enterprise leader in cloud file sharing services due to an intentional strategy to focus on enterprise use cases. Box offers centralized administration and is executing an effective partner strategy comprising integrations with numerous existing enterprise applications such as CRM and ERP. Indeed, Info-Tech recently awarded Box “Champion” status in our Cloud File Sharing Vendor Landscape, mostly based on strong enterprise credentials. Over the next two quarters, Box will be releasing numerous enhancements, once again aimed at the enterprise, such as:
- High fidelity document viewing. Full integration of the high fidelity HTML5-based document viewing technology it acquired from Crocodoc. This enables Box to remove the need for native authoring apps to view documents on any platform . In an increasingly mobile-driven work, this is a necessity to support document collaboration on any platform, especially mobile. By ensuring high fidelity of the original document, transformation to PDF is not required, unless the after-market features of PDF are desired, such as form fields or layers.
- Document metadata. Box is adding the ability to tag objects stored in Box for manipulation in custom views, apps and workflows from both the web application and the API. Note that Box has already showcased customers demanding bulk input and delivery of files, such as one client that automates the drop of 500k files to customers at the beginning of each day. Enabling document metadata is of course a natural evolution to enable content lifecycle automation, a key feature of much more complex traditional ECM products. Box even demo’d one client’s use of metadata to output dynamic. While Adobe and many other output management vendors have been doing this for as long as two decades, Info-Tech suspects that with Box, building custom content assembly solutions on its platform won’t cost you six or seven figures, as with prevailing enterprise document assembly solutions. To be fair, while the prototype assembly app we saw was nothing near as functional and rich as Adobe Digital Publisher, the bones are there. For now, the target will be better integration between Box and existing ECM and workflow systems. A private beta is will begin in a few months.
- New iPhone and iPad app. Following the acquisition of iOS app, Folders, Box has completely rewritten the app to focus on speed, security and meeting the ever rising user expectations on the new iOS apps. Users will gain a new and much faster preview for high fidelity files, including audio and videos, support for over 100 file types for server-side conversion to preview, ability to turn pages and search within PDFs. The new iOS app has much improved real time search, offer the ability to work with multiple files at a time (for move/copy/delete actions) and a more prominent showcase for Box OneCloud application gallery in the user interface for easier access to the partner ecosystem.
- Box Notes. Box Notes is a new collaborative content creation app aimed mostly at note taking scenarios for now. It includes the ability for users to see each other and make changes and annotate in the note in real-time. While the comparisons to Evernote were spreading at the conference as freely as San Francisco fog, Evernote and OneNote shouldn’t start worrying just yet. Box Notes is complementary to collaboration patterns that by definition are file-centric. Evernote and OneNote enable capture and recall of any type of information in almost any form, from files to snippets. The product is being positioned as “between word processing and communication.” Box Notes enters limited beta soon.
- New Policies and Automation Engine. The Box platform is gaining a new rules and automation engine. For now, the first exposure of this engine to users will be through the admin console, to enable policy automation for security and compliance. Combined with capabilities of Box partners like CipherCloud and Code Green Networks, full Data Loss Prevention (DLP) can be implemented. But the larger question is what else can they build on top of the new rules engine? A business user workflow builder, especially a graphical drag and drop WYSIWYG tool, is a likely next step in our opinion.
While some of Box’s competitors will likely be acquired by traditional ECM and collaboration vendors, it’s clear that Box is plunging full steam ahead to deliver a consumerized version of ECM designed for the way people want to work in today’s increasingly cloud-enabled, mobile-connected social work environments. Microsoft SharePoint 2013 as a cloud service, coupled with SkyDrive Pro in every enterprise tier of Office 365, ensures Microsoft will remain Box’s top competitor in the near future.
But what about the cloud privacy concerns? Will there be sufficient demand for cloud file storage and content collaboration? Box’s latest stats show 20 million users at 180k companies, with some level of presence (not defined) at 97% of Fortune 500 companies. Our analysts spoke with dozens of Box customers and attendees and challenged them about the perception of cloud privacy. We found custom solutions written to the Box API to be commonplace among financial services customers, especially in the mid-market. All spoke of the competitive advantage of reduced cost and time to market by using Box’s API at the heart of their solutions, with little concern about security during storage in Box’s data centers or file transfer. Most were focused on device-level security though and had adopted a Mobile Device Management (MDM) vendor. And the most popular use case we observed that was driven solely by IT was the remote backup and restore scenario. CIOs and IT Directors we spoke with were convinced that using cloud file sharing services to sync end user documents to the cloud, so that IT’s restore role is a simple re-imaging of the company’s standard laptop configuration added great value in terms of reduced support costs and restoration times. Many of those same IT leaders shared with us plans to migrate users from laptops to tablets on their roadmap.
Bottom Line: As an industry leader, Box is executing a strategy that is clearly designed to take advantage of the current IT consumerization trends to democratize traditional enterprise content management. They won’t be the only cloud file sharing vendor to do so. Organizations refreshing and expanding content lifecycle automation, especially for mobile document delivery, capture and collaboration among knowledge workers, should consider cloud file sharing services as a component of their system design. But organizations must ensure vendors have robust platforms, high capacity APIs and enterprise-class controls. Simply having a nice remote device synchronization client, connected to the cloud, will not provide strategic advantage in the long run and this capability already being commoditized by Microsoft SkyDrive Pro.