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Betting on Box in a SkyDrive and Google Drive world

Documents in the sky

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Open ... and Shut As the desktop is consumed by the rising tablet market, the file system as we know it is doomed. No, we won't suddenly lose the need to keep track of files and folders. But how we do so is undergoing a dramatic shift.

As Funambol founder Fabrizio Capobianco explains, our files increasingly live within apps. But not really. More accurately they live within the cloud, and in the enterprise that increasingly means there's a good chance they'll live within Box, Dropbox, or other consumer-friendly content storage and sync services.

As to which of these services will come to dominate, the answer is pretty much up to developers. For as Redmonk's Stephen O'Grady posits, developers are, and always have been, the industry's kingmakers.

To court these kingmakers, Box this week announced significant upgrades to its API. The changes make the API more approachable and customizable. It's a big step forward for the company, which counts 82 per cent of the Fortune 500 as its customers.

Not that Box had much of a choice. Dropbox revamped its own API in late 2011, as part of its concerted efforts to attract developers.

Now Google Drive and Microsoft SkyDrive have joined the cloud storage party, and the big differentiator for each of these services isn't going to be cost, or even features. Nor is it likely to be effective market segmentation: Dropbox is likely right that there is no real distinction between enterprise and consumer markets. Just as Apple broke into the enterprise through the consumer-driven Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend, so, too, does Dropbox plan to take over the enterprise through individual consumers.

No, the real differentiator for these cloud sync services is developers. With developers in mind, it's still very much an open contest between these rival services, though Box and Dropbox have a leg up on Google and Microsoft.

But Box isn't just looking for generic developers. The company isn't trying to solve general storage and sync problems; it wants to win the enterprise. Hence, Box is targeting the kind of developers that will improve Box to meet enterprise demands. As Box chief executive Aaron Levie describes: "[O]ur focus is extremely clear. We’re building the absolute best, simplest, and most secure way businesses can share and manage their information from anywhere."

This doesn't mean Box turns off its appeal to individual consumers: it doesn't. The company welcomes individual consumers on its site and offers a service appropriate to them. It has to, because often BYOD consumers are walking their use-at-home services into their enterprise jobs.

But the company lives and breathes the enterprise. Box has signed up more than 150 platform partners to date, and with the API changes expects to accelerate growth of its partner ecosystem.

Can enterprises use Dropbox or Google Drive to do much the same thing? Sure. But Box is betting that a focus on the enterprise will make doing so much more seamless with Box. And Levie is also at pains to point out that the company isn't a vanilla content storage and sync service, but rather is more of a content collaboration tool, similar to Microsoft SharePoint, which just happens to do content storage and synchronization very well.

Betting on the enterprise market seems like a smart move. Enterprise content management has been a wasteland of innovation for a long time. Levie's Box essentially runs roughshod over traditional ECM, just as Microsoft's SharePoint did before it. The enterprise desperately wants something easier to use than FileNet or Documentum.

Interestingly, one of Box's primary competitors for enterprise mindshare is the brainchild of John Newton, co-founder of Documentum and more recently Alfresco. Newton's company, Alfresco, has been increasingly adding a consumer face to its enterprise offerings, and to good effect: the company now claims 5.6 million users, has been (very) profitable since 2009, and is growing revenues at strong clip. (Disclosure: I am a former employee of Alfresco and remain a shareholder and admirer.)

What's fascinating in this cloud sync and sharing market is how well different vendors are doing. Dropbox is growing by leaps and bounds. So is Box. But so are Microsoft SharePoint, Alfresco, and others. There is clearly a deep, widespread need for a better way to share digital content, both within and outside the enterprise.

Ultimately, the winner will be the company that best attracts developers. Time will tell whether Box's decision to focus on enterprise developers will yield gold. But it feels like a savvy strategy, giving enterprise developers a clear reason to use job-specific Box over generalist Dropbox. And Box's strategy is bolstered by its appeal to new-school, younger developers who, like Box's CEO, didn't grow up in the enterprise and so can envision new ways to accomplish enterprise tasks without the same old enterprise complexity. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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