BoxWorks – is the Dreamforce effect really the sincerest form of flattery?

SUMMARY:

There’s a certain air of deja vu to the BoxWorks conference in San Francisco this week which can most kindly be interpreted as imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

[sws_grey_box box_size=”690″]SUMMARY – There’s a certain air of deja vu to the BoxWorks conference in San Francisco this week which can most kindly be interpreted as imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. [/sws_grey_box]

BwrZPzLIYAEYDnT.jpg-largeLast year I spoke to Box CEO Aaron Levie about his vision for BoxWorks and one of the events he cited as an exemplar on that occasion was Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce jamboree.

Dreamforce is of course now a hybrid of tech conference meets rock festival meets new age motivational thinking with guest appearences from business leaders like Richard Branson, through politicos like this year’s Hillary Clinton, to rock stars like Huey Lewis and the News. Most of these find themselves having cosy fireside chats with CEO Marc Benioff and a few thousand of his closest friends in the Moscone Center.

Back to this BoxWorks conference and cue Levie sitting down in that self-same Moscone Center for a Benioff-stylefireside chat with Dreamworks Jeffrey Katzenberg and later movie actor Jared Leto, dressed down in full designer hobo-chic and passing round his Oscar so the audience could take selfies.

It’s all a far cry from Larry Ellison and Mark Hurd’s straight down the line product pitches that characterize Oracle OpenWorld these, that’s for certain.

And yet, and yet…is that necessarily a good thing?

Dreamforce has set an enviable standard for re-inventing the industry technology conference as ‘event’ rather than expo. But the desire to emulate isn’t always going to work when practised by others.

In Levie, Box has a charismatic, energetic and very funny guy at the helm and it’s easy to see why Benioff himself names him as one of the next generation Silicon Valley leaders. He’s certainly more than capable in the role of front man and ‘chat show host’ for the business good and the great.

Last year’s BoxWorks had an intimacy that was encouraging and refreshing, but as companies grow, so too do their conferences and their ambitions for them.  At that point, the question always becomes when to rein in the razzle-dazzle and when to get to the main business du jour.

It’s a balance that frankly Dreamforce hasn’t always got right over the years and it was interesting to note some of the comments on Twitter that seemed to indicate a BoxWorks audience that wanted to cut to the chase:

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(The Dreamforce comparisons continue on more admirable note with the flagging up of Box’s philanthropic endeavors, much to be praised there at a time when the contribution Silicon Valley firms make to the local communities is under the microscope.)

Microsoft manoeuvring

Elsewhere perhaps the most significant announcement of the day also brought back echoes of Salesforce.com as Levie followed Benioff into a 180 degree change of attitude towards the post-Ballmer Microsoft, usually the butt of many of his opening keynote skits.

Where Benioff went to war with Oracle with all the resulting fun, headlines and corporate petulance that ensued, Levie has traditionally launched himself into full scale assaults on Sharepoint in particular and the Redmond empire in general.

But with the announcement of Box for Office 365, it was a more subdued tone on show. Basically this is an extension that allows users to access documents stored in Box without leaving Word, Excel or Powerpoint on their PC, said Levie:

It’s all about delivering new ways for how tomorrow works…The power of the cloud is that information can move across the applications you use. It’s our job to make sure that you can get to your data wherever you want. We’re constantly surveying what the top applications customers are using that we need to integrate with. Today, going live in beta is Box for Office 365. It’s all about delivering your content wherever and whenever you need it.

You’ll note at this point, that this is not about Office for iPad, which in cloud storage terms is restricted to OneDrive. Levie said:

The first integration is on the desktop application…We are also working on ways to integration with Office 365 online and we also have an integration coming with Office 365 for Apple. We’ve also heard from customers that they want it available in Office on the iPad. Fortunately, Microsoft is taking a much more open stance. It is becoming more interopable so we are quite confident this is an integration it will be building towards.

While Salesforce.com’s detente with Microsoft earned Benioff a photoshoot with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, that’s not the case with Box with not so much as a Microsoft exec on stage to deliver the standard ‘co-opetition is good’ mantra.

In fact, Levie ended up flashing up an image of Nadella’s Twitter profile and urging the audience at BoxWorks to tweet him in favor of Box integration with Office for iPad. He quipped:

Here is one person who can make this go along a lot faster. You can reach out to him at any time you like to say you want Box for Office 365 on the iPad.

Mind you, just as Levie seemed to be reaching out to the Microsoft world, a new front may just have opened up as Google chose the eve of BoxWorks to rename its Enterprise division ”Google for Work” with Google Drive now being pitched as an enterprise solution.

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has ominously declated:

The time has come for our name to catch up with our ambition. As of today, what was called Google Enterprise is now simply Google for Work.

That ambition adds another serious player to an already very competitive and increasingly crowded market sector. Box badly needs to focus down on its key differentiators and articulate those to the enterprise market.

Meanwhile alongside the film stars and the celebrity business chats there was the elephant in the room: the IPO.

Or rather, the IPO that nobody wants to talk to about any more as it is at this point that the garrulous Levie notably becomes a man of few words.

This time last year it could reasonably have been expected that he would be CEO if a public company by now, but the floatation plans have been on hold since spring. In July Box lowered its IPO target to $150 million from $250 million.

Maybe next year?

My take

Box seems to be sitting in that most uncomfortable of places: a tipping point. The delay to the IPO may well be sensible given the market sentiments at play at present, but the perception is one of hesitancy and ‘maybe now, maybe now, maybe now, maybe not yet’. A large part of this is out of their control but as I said above, the elephant is in the room and may well continue to be so into 2015.

Meanwhile competition hots up and the cloud storage and collaboration markets become tougher places to play in and to differentiate in.

As more and more enterprise software vendors seek to bring collaborative functionality into their core offerings, the case for the standalone pureplay needs to be articulated all the more strongly.

Yesterday’s Microsoft announcement was really the next step in something already announced. It’s interesting enough and it’s certainly a user-friendly move in the right direction away from Sharepoint sabre-rattling, but is it really that big a differentiator? Especially when it’s clear that the desired rapprochement in the ‘relationship’ between the two firms is coming from one direction.

Box has a lot of good stuff to talk about, some compelling end user examplars to brandish and in Levie, someone who can shape up to be one of the great future leaders of the industry. It’s really important to play to those strengths. To that end, the firm needs to focus on being Box qua Box, not a Box which would be Salesforce.com.

Still, there’s one thing to be grateful for: it doesn’t seem that Box is the cloud storage of choice for Hollywood starlets to store their sex tapes and naked selfies in. That really would be taking celebrity exposure at a trade conference  one step too far!

Disclosure: at time of writing, Oracle and Salesforce.com are premium partners of diginomica.