Is Dropbox all boxed in?

By Fritz Nelson , written on July 10, 2013

From The News Desk

You’re watching this, right? Yesterday, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston announced several additions to the Dropbox Platform, hoping to extend the use of Dropbox as a personal cloud file system across any application and any device. The day before, rival Box CEO Aaron Levie announced a tight integration of the Box personal cloud service with, another in a long list of Box integrations with key enterprise software solutions.

Oh, it’s on.

It’s not just between Box and Dropbox, though. Let’s not forget what Microsoft is doing with SkyDrive, especially in Windows 8.1, or Google Drive and Apple's iCloud, juggernauts in their own right. Supremacy is up for grabs, and enterprise adoption will be a crucial accelerator. And that’s where Dropbox could face longer-term challenges, despite a series of recent, positive moves.

Most chief risk officers and CIOs still think that personal cloud services like Dropbox and Box and iCloud rank somewhere among sexual harassment and corporate data theft in the list of top enterprise risks, but they've also come to accept the inevitability that employees will store, transfer, and share files through those services, mostly for good purposes.

Lately, organizations have been purchasing these services on behalf of end users, in most cases through enterprise license deals that emerged when these cloud companies accidentally realized the enormity of their corporate footholds. CIOs have attempted to create policies and controls around all of the data that lands in the cloud out of fear (risk) and necessity (compliance).

I have personal accounts on Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, Apple iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive and SugarSync. I like them all, but of those, I primarily use Dropbox and Google Drive, mostly because they are both dead easy, and fit into the way I work and the type of job I have. I create documents (like these), I share them, and I collaborate with them, sometimes in real time. I follow this pattern in my personal life, and at work.

I suspect most people follow similar patterns, with minor differences. The barrier to entry here has also been raised, thanks to the viral effect these services create when colleagues rope each other in. It's kind of like peer pressure. Someone wants to share a Dropbox file with you and you're exposed to Dropbox. Or is intent on sharing a Google Doc with you. Pretty soon you've adopted another utility into your life whether you planned yo or not. Past success begets an almost insurmountable foundation.

As each personal cloud provider attempts to view the world through its own lens (a Microsoft world, a Google world, a multi-vendor world), that view informs strategy and the choices each makes. In particular, as long as Microsoft, Google and Apple have an ample customer base for the various services they offer and tie to their personal cloud services (music, books, e-mail, documents created with their own apps), they'll be fine. The ability to store and share any file, even outside of each vendor's set of content services is really just frosting on the cake. Organizations have very little choice but to accept these convenient ecosystems (apps/content/cloud).

It's the rest of them I'm worried about.

Dropbox CEO Drew Houston told Forbes late last year that his company doubled its customer base (to 100 million), and that its service saves 1 billion files in a 24 hour period. Today, the user base stands at 175 million, Houston said as he kicked off Dropbox’s first-ever developer conference this week.

I doubt Dropbox will falter much on the consumer side any time soon, but as customers start to use these services to move seamlessly between play and work, I have doubts about it in the enterprise. So far it seems to be banking on two fundamental strategies where the enterprise is concerned: simple application integration by exposing APIs, and following an approach that sounds eerily similar to that of Box in its early days.

Developers can use the Dropbox APIs to authenticate to Dropbox, and then allow users to upload, download, choose and sync files within an application. All good things, but no different than what you can do with Microsoft SkyDrive and Google Drive APIs (Drive APIs also let developers incorporate real time file collaboration, just like what you can do in Google Apps).

What Dropbox added in today’s announcements attempts to make it easier for developers to extend the service even further, and more easily. Honestly, the changes seem incremental. In particular, the company added its DataStore API, which takes storage and content syncing beyond just the everyday files, letting developers store things like settings, so that applications are at parity (from a data standpoint anyway) across platforms and devices, even extending that functionality to offline use, syncing up data when the user re-connects. Dropbox already offered its Sync API, which lets apps treat DropBox like a local file system, but through Chooser and Saver Drop-ins (Drop-ins are pre-built code that developers can integrate into their app code in minutes), this capability is extended to Android and iOS.

Dropbox is more popular at work because it's also more popular at home, and so the company created Dropbox for Business, and has been hard at work capitalizing on the fact that its customers have managed to get the technology in the corporate door by any means necessary (mostly by not asking). It has established a "partner network," using the channel to further its reach in the enterprise, and it has created more controls for IT, including the ability to create a more collaborative layer to Dropbox (team spaces for sharing and syncing documents) and managing accounts through Microsoft's Active Directory.

Dropbox is also now accessible within Yahoo Mail, and earlier this year acquired Mailbox.

But all of that may not be enough to fend off the Google-Microsoft-Apple contingent, or to compete against the long strides that Box has made in the enterprise. Box started life with the notion that its service wasn't just about storing files, but managing them within an enterprise workflow.

Yesterday, Box announced tight integration with Salesforce's cloud CRM application. Where it had once just been a file saving target from within a Salesforce record, the integration takes advantage of Box Embed, which layers on the collaboration and workflow parts of Box. That is, the Box experience gets embedded directly within the Salesforce application. There are 20 Box Embed partners to date (the functionality was launched late last year), including DocuSign, Oracle, Jive Software, NetSuite, Tidemark and FuzeBox, just to expose some of the diversity.

If Salesforce could work with Box to make Embed part of the development platform, that would be a nifty trick. A Box spokeswoman said that Box Embed isn't yet supported through any application.

By itself, then, the Salesforce integration looks like just another notch on Aaron Levie's belt. But it isn't, really. It's much more than that.

I'll admit that when Levie first came around years ago, spewing his anti-Microsoft rhetoric with the vigorous bite of an angry comic, I was entertained, but not entirely convinced that Box could live up to his intentions: to make Box the independent cloud service for the enterprise. But some 150 partners and $280 million in raised capital later, I'd say he's pretty serious. He's living up to his intentions.

Many of these cloud file systems started life as almost a mere repository, a place to store files. You went to them. Now, they follow you, providing document storage, sharing and collaboration, and if Box has its way, doing so in the context of just about any enterprise application.

But that doesn't mean Box is going to win either, even in the enterprise where it has so clearly focused its efforts. The question is whether user experience and ubiquitous integration (Dropbox) or functional integration (Box) wins? It could just be that Box has gone too far, and that the simplicity of a cloud-based file store, like Dropbox, is all anyone ever wanted.