Box woos developers to flesh out platform strategy

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko May 24, 2016
Box has grand ambitions to own the enterprise collaboration space. It therefore makes sense to woo developers early on.

jeetu patel
Jeetu Patel - chief strategy officer, Box

Box is setting out its next steps along the enterprise path by tempting developers to build on its platform. Why?

Cloud file storage and sharing has turned out to be so compelling that it's reshaped the way people work, simultaneously rendering USB keys virtually obsolete, undermining demand for consumer-grade removable storage and turning the category into a de facto enterprise collaboration platform.

Yet the concept's very simplicity has also made a commodity, with dozens of vendors peddling services that are largely identical. Some of us have long said that by itself, cloud file sharing is a feature, not a product, and that pure play companies like Box and Dropbox were at risk of having their business gradually eroded as SaaS platforms like Google Apps, Office 365 and Salesforce added file storage, sharing and collaboration features. Why pay for a standalone point product when cloud storage is integral to the apps you and your co-workers are already using? One answer: evolve down the stack from SaaS to PaaS, an idea upon which Box is betting the company.

As the largest file sharing specialist to successfully IPO, Box was the first to feel the scrutiny of market expectations and publicly acknowledge the risks of horizontal integration by much larger SaaS providers. Without a bold, differentiating strategy, Box faced existential threats on a number of fronts.

The core of that strategy was announced last fall: become an application-agnostic content platform in which the Box apps are but one manifestation, reference models if you will, of how the underlying content storage, sharing, editing and security services might be used. It's a compelling vision, but requires equally competent execution. A cornerstone of Box's platform execution is developer outreach, adoption and support. Evidence of how critical developers and app-driven adoption are to Box’s future is this week's announcement of a redesigned developer website.

From file sharing to content management platform

Box detailed its platform strategy at last year's Boxworks developer conference. As I wrote at the time,

Boxworks demonstrated a company completely focused on building a platform and that means focusing on the backend infrastructure and service APIs. Analogies abound including products like Stripe for app payment workflow and payment, Twilio for communication services, even sharing economy favorites like Airbnb and Uber that provide a common infrastructure to coordinate thousands of individual service providers.

The beauty of a content management and sharing platform is that users increasingly share content across different apps.

But an app platform is only as good as the tools available for it and its ultimate success is the number of developers it can attract. On both fronts, Box has made notable progress in the past 7 months. Much of the success undoubtedly comes from last year's hiring Jeetu Patel away from his job running competitor Syncplicity, once a part of EMC and now independent. Known for his Jobsian obsession with elegant design and long vision of cloud file sharing as much more than a convenient replacement for sneakernet, as Chief Strategy Officer Patel's task was to add structure, detail and direction to Box's strategy.

Enticing developers

According to Patel, the foundation of Box-as-platform is:

...delivering the features of Box as RESTful services in a generalized way.

But having the right software tools and APIs is necessary, but not sufficient. Platforms are not a field of dreams: build it and they may never come. Instead, platform companies must actively court and evangelize developers, to educate, facilitate and support them. It's something Guy Kawasaki pioneered at Apple as proselytized the benefits of the Mac’s bold, new UI. Yet developer outreach is even more important today when choices of platform and services are abundant, which makes Box's new website both significant and strategic.

Much as he did at Syncplicity, Patel is focused on the user experience, which in this case translates to "taking the friction out" of using the Box platform. Patel understands that a platform is much more than APIs, so the new developer site includes much more documentation, sample code and SDKs supporting all the major client devices and backend languages. Box is also adding other staples of developer support including newsletters, webinars and interactive "office hours" where developers can work through their problems with experts. Patel's goal is to provide developers an "immersive experience" that facilitates building enterprise-quality apps that exploit the many content management, collaboration and security features available in Box, but on compressed, Internet-year timelines.

Adoption of Box's platform is off to a good start with 75,000 developers making 6 billion API calls a month.

While the Microsoft Office partnership is the most visible, it’s but one of more than 1,000 apps, including many from software giants like Adobe, IBM, Oracle and Salesforce, connected to Box. Yet, instead of undermining demand for Box, these linkages with products that often already include cloud file storage and sharing are fueling it.

When asked specifically about Office 365, Patel said some of Box’s largest recent deals have been with customers deploying Box and Office 365 in parallel. Indeed, companies open to moving core business software and workflows to Office 365 are more inclined to use other cloud products like Box.

My take

Box’s platform strategy aligns with the larger theme of modular, shared cloud microservices that are combined in myriad ways to create tightly focused applications. Whether these are ride sharing apps or in support of a custom enterprise business process, developers have learned that it’s more efficient to consume generalized services rather than create your own.

Box’s mission is to become the content management substrate that more and more apps depend on. As long as developers and content owners can mitigate the natural tendency towards data gravity creating provider lock-in (a very real risk), using Box (or something else) as a common repository promises greater efficiency, less data redundancy, lower costs, improved sharing and collaboration and greater, more consistent security. Of course, Box isn’t the only company to understand the benefits of platform standardization, look where it got Microsoft. Dropbox, AWS, Google and others surely have similar ideas, but Box is furthest along in transforming from file sharing SaaS specialist to app-agnostic content infrastructure.

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