Box has always tried to differentiate itself from the plethora of cloud file sync-and-share startups by focusing on enterprise customers and their requirements. This led the company down the path of providing greater management control over users and content. At the company’s recent Boxworks developers conference, Box made clear its larger ambitions of becoming the content management platform in the cloud for all comers: enterprises, third-party app developers and their customers. In this column, I analyze the strategy and its implications.
Most of the major announcements at Boxworks, like the IBM and app integrations, better content management and security features, make more sense when seen in the light of the larger platform strategy. Although not as visible as some of the UI and content discovery features Constellation bemoaned, as a platform, such end-user features will often be handled by apps plugging to the Box infrastructure. As fully envisioned by Jeetu Patel (Box’s new CSO and head of Platform), Box slips into the background for many users: they don’t necessarily login to a Box account and aren’t directly using a Box app.
Boxworks demonstrated a company completely focused on building a platform and that means focusing on the backend infrastructure and service APIs. Analogies abound including products like Stripe for app payment workflow and payment, Twilio for communication services, even sharing economy favorites like Airbnb and Uber that provide a common infrastructure to coordinate thousands of individual service providers.
The beauty of a content management and sharing platform is that users increasingly share content across different apps. For example, someone at one firm may create and share a Word document that business partners or customers consume through apps that may render it in different ways: as an annotatable PDF, form or raw text. Box sits in the background transparently applying user and device security policies and rights management and supplying content discovery and categorization features, while the end user interacts with a familiar application that’s part of their normal workflow.
I have previously criticized Box and its bigger pure-play competitor, Dropbox, as being one-trick ponies that deliver a feature (cloud-based file sync and share), not a product. I later noted that Box wisely used its IPO cash to buy time for a new strategy, however at the time I still didn’t see the competitive moat. Instead of a moat, I should have been thinking of bridges. Box’s evolution into a content management platform clearly demonstrates that it recognized the problem: cloud file sharing is a baseline commodity feature built into every major online platform. As the column discusses, Box’s platform strategy is both compelling (plenty of upside) and risky (it’s essentially betting the company on the strategy’s successful execution). Read the full column for details.