It seems to me every online collaboration platform is missing crucial pieces of functionality. Each of them has one or two strengths and a laundry-list of could-do-better. You can sync files but you can't edit. You can edit collaboratively but you can't format reliably. You can check documents in and out but you can't edit on-screen with your team.
Today, Box plugs one of its gaps with the announcement of Box Notes, a collaborative online editor that has been designed under the watchful eye of VP of engineering Sam Schillace, the co-founder of Google Docs predecessor Writely, who was engineering lead at Google Apps for several years until joining Box in August 2012.
Though some may be tempted to describe Box Notes as a Google Docs killer, that is to misunderstand its purpose.
Notes isn't anything like a full-function word processor — it's a really simple online editor. What it lacks in formatting capabilities it makes up for in collaboration smarts.
Everyone who's editing a Note has their profile picture displayed in the left margin next to where they've placed their cursor. An inline toolbar pops up with editing options, such as inserting a link or image, or adding a comment or annotation on other people's edits. As product manager Jonathan Berger explains in a blog post:
"When you're working on a note with multiple people, it's easy to see where everyone else is working. We've found that it facilitates activities like conference calls because you can say 'look here' rather than 'look at the third paragraph, line number four'."
Notes are created in a Box folder and are instantly shared with whoever has access to that folder.
All on the same page
Teams at Box have already taken up the tool internally, CEO Aaron Levie told me in an advance briefing late last week:
"We've been using this internally in Box. In a lot of meetings, people will now do away with Powerpoint presentations and just throw up a Note on Box. It becomes this really powerful way of getting everybody on the same page.
"Every single project in the company is going into Box Notes ... When you don't want to check in, check out, you just want to share ideas, it is becoming the container for that."
In my view, this adds a capability that's been desperately missing from online file collaboration tools — the folder often serves as the hub of a project but with no facility for collaboratively editing a document, there's been no way of embedding real-time collaboration into the folder — no 'same page' that everybody can be on.
Google Drive is the exception, offering the powerful collaborative editing capabilities of Google Docs, but it lacks the easy workflow features of a platform like Box. And while Box can store and edit Word and Zoho documents along with other document formats, those documents can only be edited by one user at a time. Box looked at embedding Google Docs and other collaborative editing document types in its folders but "the APIs from those services really aren't enough to make that possible," Levie told me.
The next best thing is having the original creator of Google Docs design a new editor that's built specifically for collaboration. As Shillace explained in an interview with GigaOm back in February this year, the Web is enabling a new, less structured form of document that provides more of a digital canvas for interaction:
"Underlying all of this, what's really going on is the business interaction you want to have ... The point of the document is you usually either record something for yourself or to have an interaction with another human being. And I think we can gradually start peeling away layers of artifice and try to get down to the raw core of that interaction."
As Levie told me, this emerging need represents an opportunity for companies like Box to invent a new tool that could become standard utility for businesses:
"We're trying to get to a new class of information, a new class of knowledge ...
"We're at one of those unique transition periods. We think these windows only come every decade or two where the way we work is changing, and that can benefit the new companies more than the incumbents."
Box has produced the cheerful video below to show off the thinking behind Notes. It is currently accepting sign-ups for a limited private beta. The provider plans to make the editor generally available around the turn of the year.
Box currently claims more than 20 million individual users and 180,000 businesse customers, including larger enterprises such as Discovery Communications, Procter Gamble, and AutoTrader Group. The company has amassed $284 million in funding from a cross-section of Silicon Valley's leading venture capital firms.
Disclosure: Box is a diginomica partner. Box contributed to the author's travel expenses to attend its BoxWorks conference, which opens today.
Image credits: All images courtesy of Box.