Once something of a niche product, the virtual whiteboard has come into its own over the past two years. No longer able to gather in meeting rooms as workplaces went into lockdown, distributed teams embraced the technology to brainstorm remotely in virtual meetings. It's now become such a commonplace tool that cloud content management provider Box has decided to make it a core part of its platform. Today it has announced the launch of Box Canvas, a virtual whiteboard that will become available free of charge to its customers later this year.
The obvious question is, why offer something as part of the Box platform that is already well-served by virtual whiteboard pureplays such as Miro and Mural? The answer, according to Diego Dugatkin, SVP and Chief Product Officer, is that Box brings enterprise-friendly capabilities that are not natively present in products that focus solely on the whiteboard experience. He explains:
The integration of Canvas in the bigger picture of what happens in enterprise is way beyond what companies that only do whiteboarding can do or even are planning to do, because they're hyper-focused on just the whiteboarding aspect. Our intent is to bring value to the user, but also to the enterprise as a whole, where whiteboarding is part of something a bit more complex, in the sense that it has many more moving parts.
Plugging into Box security and workflow
Box has paid a lot of attention over the years to enterprise-grade security, and sees this as a particularly strong differentiation for organizations where the content being generated on digital whiteboards may be highly commercially sensitive or confidential. Another element is the native connection into Box's growing workflow automation capabilities, including e-signature, enabling the whiteboard activity to plug into a broader end-to-end enterprise process. This is particularly important now that hybrid working and digital teamwork has become routine. Dugatkin says:
The way we work together today starts with a whiteboard, and then becomes a Box Note. Then later, you may want to secure it and add something and send it for signature.
Naturally, it's also straightforward to bring existing content within Box into a Canvas whiteboard. He adds:
The content that is within Box is trivial to bring it into Canvas. If you have something that is outside of Box, you can bring it to Box and then from there load to Canvas, the same way you can load to any other application within the Box portfolio.
Having all of this natively available, at no extra cost, without having to integrate several different best-of-breed products, simplifies things for Box's customers. He comments:
The customer does not want to have multiple areas of work that require changing applications and leaving the platform, because that increases risk, reduces productivity, and typically increases cost as well.
The new product will be presented this Thursday at the Box Content Cloud Summit virtual event. Pre-designed templates support use cases such as creating a marketing campaign, mapping out a workflow, storyboarding a user experience, creating interactive sales tools, or hands-on training sessions.
Canvas supports free-form drawing and text, and provides visual building blocks to create diagrams, wireframes and process flows. Participants can add their feedback using sticky notes and comments, or vote on ideas with emojis. Timer tools are included to enforce deadlines for contributions, and notifications and at-mentions can alert participants to provide input. Participation can either be in real time or asynchronous, and there's also the ability to create presentation slides from Canvas whiteboards.
The product builds on an acquisition of a team and technology last year that has since been expanded to bring the initial version to market. There's more to come, says Dugatkin:
The roadmap is extremely feature-rich, but we're not going to wait until having [fully] completed roadmaps to roll out, because our customers are asking for some basic instrumentation sooner rather than later.
There was a time, back in the day when Box was primarily a cloud file-sharing platform, that people used to dismiss it as 'a feature not a product'. It's somewhat ironic, therefore, to see the vendor now turning other people's products into features on its own much expanded platform — last year, with the launch of Box Sign, its native e-signature capability, and now with Box Canvas. Though when I mentioned this in my interview with Dugatkin, he pointed out that Box isn't offering a standalone product that sets out to compete with the pureplay vendors. It just feels that customers will find it more convenient, efficient and secure to have it as a native feature. This fits in with what Aaron Levie, Box's CEO, just told me about Box's broader strategy:
We are creating more unstructured data than ever before because of this way of working. Every brainstorm, every project plan, every meeting note, every sales presentation, every contract — all of this is content.
We are seeing an explosion in the amount of content that's being produced, that's needing to be shared, that's being secured. So we see that there's now a really an opportunity to reinvent this whole market.
One can be forgiven for speculating what type of collaborative content might be next for absorption into the Box platform. If digital whiteboards are an up-and-coming form of unstructured content that enterprises need to store, make secure, and incorporate into workflow processes, couldn't you say the same about video meetings? Unsurprisingly, Dugatkin declined to comment when I put this to him, except to rule it out "this fiscal year."
The more serious point is one that I spend a lot of time thinking about — which elements of the collaborative canvas of digital teamwork work best as part of a single platform, and which work best as standalone components? The larger the organization, the more often the answer is, 'It depends.' The collaborative canvas consists of four different teamwork patterns — messaging, content, application-centric and workflow — and which of those matters most to an individual worker or team often varies according to the type of work they do. Therefore, it's inevitable that a large organization will have several different teamwork platforms to serve these different forms of work, and must pay attention to how they're integrated to streamline communication and workflow.
For content-centric work, it makes a lot of sense to bring some workflow elements into the same platform along with various ancillary applications. From that perspective, digital signatures and whiteboards certainly do make sense as part of the content teamwork platform. But other workers across the enterprise will have other teamwork patterns where content in the traditional sense is less relevant. Whereas digital signatures are a natural extension to content workflows — you need to have something to sign, after all — digital whiteboards are actually a new instrument of content creation. They can be a useful tool for any of the different patterns of digital teamwork. But if you class their output as content, and mandate the use of Box to manage it, as an organization you're then extending Box's reach into teamwork patterns where the vendor hasn't previously been relevant. From that perspective therefore it will be interesting to see how Box Canvas will be adopted over the coming year or two, and what the implications are for whatever other emerging forms of digital content Box decides in the future should be native on its platform.