Microsoft, Google, Box vie for enterprise collaboration market

SUMMARY:

Microsoft, Google, Box and others are eager to dominate the enterprise collaboration market because of its importance in the digital era

© Christian Schwier - Fotolia.comThings have again moved on dramatically since I last looked at the emerging enterprise collaboration market in April.

The reconfiguration of rivalries includes Microsoft linking up with Box and Salesforce.com. Meanwhile Google has rebranded its enterprise division as Google for Work, Salesforce.com just moved in on Jive’s territory (or should I say LinkedIn’s?), and there was the quiet arrival of Amazon Web Services with its Zocalo file sharing service.

This all matters because of the special significance of collaboration in the digital enterprise. It is one of the key segments in the emerging landscape of new, digitally connected enterprise applications, as shown in the updated schematic below.

by @philwwA vendor that becomes dominant in any of these segments will do extremely well in the digital age, just as those who dominated sectors such as ERP, CRM and HCM did very well in the client-server era. But collaboration is an especially strategic segment — much more so than its client-server predecessor, enterprise content management (ECM).

When information passes around in real-time and people want results on demand, collaboration becomes a crucial component in connecting processes between multiple participants and across different types of business activity. Thus collaboration goes beyond a single application segment to become more of a platform for the entire enterprise. That’s what makes it strategically important for vendors. The vendor that owns the collaboration piece ends up deeply embedded in the entire digital enterprise.

Box in the bowling alley

This is the prize that Box is strenuously chasing with a series of telling announcements at last week’s annual Boxworks conference. The tie-up with Microsoft was an eye-catching display of co-opetition but it perhaps overshadowed some of this year’s more important announcements. Interestingly several of them were already presaged at the previous year’s Boxworks, when moves were announced to add metadata and step up targeting of specific enterprise verticals.

This year, building on technologies acquired at the end of last year, the metadata has been folded into a full-blown workflow framework that includes some very clever machine learning algorithms to apply rules to documents instead of relying on humans remembering to do it.

And just to make sure prospects understand how to make use of this technology, Box is going to provide templated solutions tailormade for specific industries. If you think that sounds rather like the ‘bowling alley’ phase of new technology adoption described in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, then you won’t be surprised to learn that Moore has been advising Box.

Box’s other enterprise-friendly move was a tie-up with AT&T that will allow customers to access Box’s servers over a private circuit rather than using a public Internet connection. It’s an interesting way of addressing enterprise concerns about data security while avoiding having to put Box servers into enterprise data centers. The company also revealed new access management and governance tools.

Finally, to help things along, Box is working on expanding its partner channel and is encouraging developers to join its platform ecosystem. Box still has its work cut out to make headway in a sector dominated by a very digitally savvy Microsoft and the equally formidable Google. But I’m not as pessimistic of its chances as some of my diginomica colleagues.

Google gets to work

Google has the market muscle to be dominant in this sector but it has lacked the commitment to meeting enterprise concerns head-on — it would never cross its corporate mind, for example, to offer private circuit options for logging into Gmail. So last week’s rebranding of its Google Enterprise division as Google For Work will remove much of the cognitive dissonance that may have tripped up previous enterprise engagements.

It doesn’t mean Google is any less interested in signing up large enterprises. But it wants to go after that business on its own terms, not on theirs. Google believes that cloud computing and pervasive connectivity is changing the way we work (no dispute there) and that in turn will change the nature of the market. As Eric Schmidt put it in his blog post announcing the change of name:

We never set out to create a traditional “enterprise” business — we wanted to create a new way of doing work. So the time has come for our name to catch up with our ambition.

A useful side-effect of the rebranding is that it simultaneously helps to bring together several ingredients of the portfolio that customers may have previously viewed in separate buckets, in particular bringing the Google Cloud Platform and Chromebooks together with Google Apps. How that will work out remains to be seen but Google’s sheer size and market presence make it a formidable player.

Microsoft rolls out Delve

Microsoft’s aggressive marketing of Office 365, OneDrive, Yammer and its other online collaboration products continues at full throttle as it fights to parlay its already strong position in enterprise collaboration into the cloud. Its new partnerships with the likes of Salesforce.com and Box have demonstrated its renewed self-confidence that it can compete effectively based on the merits of its offerings.

The latest addition to those offerings was introduced earlier this year as Project Oslo, and has now been launched under the product name Delve. This is a product that uses contextual information derived from Microsoft’s collaboration product suite to provide highly accurate enterprise search results.

The underlying metadata store is known as the Office Graph, which I have previously described as Microsoft’s secret weapon in the cloud wars. In time there will be APIs that let third parties hook into the Office Graph, for as I explained back in March:

[O]nce a history of signals and context has been captured, it becomes increasingly disruptive for any enterprise to move off the [G]raph to an alternative platform.

Content analytics

A new theme to flag up from the current clutch of announcements is the emergence of content analytics. Delve is one example of this, the machine intelligence applied by Box Workflow is another. There’s a lot of information sitting out there in and around the content we use and exchange that could help us collaborate a whole lot more efficiently.

One of the first vendors in the collaboration space to examine the power of applying machine intelligence was Huddle. Two weeks ago the UK-founded vendor added a secure publishing platform, accompanied by a dashboard that allows enterprises to track and analyze usage.

In a brief phone call last week, CTO Stuart Cochran emphasized how collecting metadata can help users streamline their work:

What we allow people to collaborate around is not simply the document. There are many more opportunities when you have access to the metadata around that — comments, versions, approvals. The more we can automatically sync that metadata, the more people see that Huddle dramatically improves their productivity.

Collecting and tracking the metadata is even more important than managing the content itself, he added:

There is a fragmentation happening where people are working in many clouds all at the same time.

For us that’s a really important opportunity — ultimately people need one place to bring them all together where they can share all that knowledge with their teams and collaborate effectively.

Collaboration interlopers

Some players are eyeing the collaboration space despite having a primary focus on other application segments. The clearest example is Salesforce.com, which last week upgraded its Community Cloud platform with new capabilities.

In fairness to the vendor, the principal use case for the platform is in building communities to engage with customers or partners, which is first and foremost a CRM activity. But taken together with its Chatter social engagement platform, it adds up to a significant presence in the collaboration segment.

Salesforce.com itself described Community Cloud as a ‘LinkedIn for business’ although diginimica’s Stuart Luachlan was more interested in the challenge to social collaboration vendor Jive, which found its own product refresh somewhat overshadowed.

Finally, there’s Amazon waiting in the wings, with its file storage and sharing service Zocalo becoming available at the end of last month. This is not the only application segment of business software where the online retailer has been quietly building a presence. It may come to nothing of significance, but no one should never underestimate Amazon’s potential to make waves.

Disclosure: Salesforce.com is a diginomica premier partner and is currently a consulting client of the author.

Image credit: © Christian Schwier – Fotolia.com