Now in part two, we'll begin to examine how the contenders, from Slack and Dropbox to Microsoft, Google and many others, measure up to the emerging demands of collaboration in the digital enterprise.
Not by messaging alone
One of the most remarkable developments of the digital era has been the popularity and versatility of messaging. Initially developed as Internet chat and mobile phone messaging, it's now the basis of leading consumer applications such as Snapchat and WeChat. But messaging needs to be combined with other functions to provide the full range of collaboration that enterprises need.
Popular messaging platform Slack has started 2017 with significant additions to its feature set that will augment its enterprise appeal. First, it added the long-awaited capability to pursue separate message threads that don't disrupt the main message stream. Then at the end of last month it introduced Enterprise Grid to support multiple Slack workspaces within a single organization, accompanied by more granular security settings. Both measures make Slack a whole lot more manageable for large enterprises — but its messaging-centric focus may not be enough to satisfy all their needs.
Slack at least has significant functionality to integrate its messaging to applications and to content, bolstered by its partnership with Google Cloud, announced late last year. That functionality puts it well ahead of Facebook, for example, which introduced a much more limited business-focused Workplace platform last October.
It's important not to underestimate the versatility of messaging to improve productivity, as more established players such as Jive have proven by consolidating enterprise collaboration onto a single platform.
Furthermore, mobile-first messaging helps people get tasks done even faster, as tasks and workflows can be completed directly from the messaging interface without having to open the underlying applications.
But in many cases, collaboration requires interactions with content. The strongest messaging-based player here is Microsoft, which launched its all-new Teams conversation platform last November. Teams integrates many of Microsoft's other collaboration tools, including Skype, but most importantly it integrates with the full spectrum of Office 365 applications and services.
Microsoft's huge business customer base gives it a massive head start in the enterprise collaboration market that will be hard for newcomers like Slack to erode. And its sync capabilities are starting to overcome earlier shortcomings and at last are catching up with competitors, most notably Dropbox. But its integration to content isn't as strong as other players who have focused on content rather than messaging.
Content is king
While messaging is important, connecting to content is crucial to many enterprise collaboration scenarios. Therefore many of the leading digital collaboration contenders start from a content-sharing background. But they vary in the nature of the connection they offer to that content, and in how well they integrate that connection back to any messaging. Finding the right combination is almost certainly the key to winning leadership in enterprise collaboration.
Of all the entrants that started out in the consumer market, Box has made the biggest strides in catering to tough enterprise demands around security, privacy and data residency. It combines this enterprise-class compliance with the advantages of a cloud-based service — in particular ease of sharing across the enterprise boundary with external collaborators.
Box's unique mechanism for connecting content with collaboration is Box Notes, which had a significant functional upgrade last month. Notes is an example of what I think of as a 'collaboration canvas'. This is an open-ended, hyper-connected document, where collaborators can record notes and comments, embed shared files, and link out to messaging and other functionality. Because Notes connects into the broader Box platform, it provides a lot of useful capabilities. The one key feature it lacks is full file synchronization.
File sync is a major new addition to Egnyte's enterprise-focused file sharing service. This is a big leg-up for a service that lacks other collaboration features but instead plugs into the existing applications people are using. The new Egnyte Connect provides one-click access to an enterprise-wide library of shared content, directly from the desktop file system. Unlike cloud-native alternatives, this content can remain stored in existing content stores, whether they're on-premise or in the cloud, while the Connect app gives users the option to replicate a synched copy to local storage.
The Egnyte offering will appeal to enterprises that expect to operate a hybrid environment for some time to come, but because it connects to existing content stores, the synchronization it can offer is limited to what those file systems can support. In many cases that means the entire file gets locked if two users concurrently edit their synched copies.
Similarly, its collaboration capabilities depend on what other platforms the user decides to plug it into. Its partnership with Microsoft may prove attractive to Microsoft-centric environments, and it offers a strong set of enterprise content management tools, but the limitations of coexistence with less networked file formats leave its role as more of a transitional stopgap than a destination.
G Suite, the recently renamed Google Apps, takes a more cloud-centric approach to synchronization, allowing simultaneous editing of documents, spreadsheets and presentations by multiple users at the same time — but only in its own file formats. Other files can be stored and shared in Google Drive, which recently added an enterprise-friendly Team Drive capability. Late last month, the cloud giant also unveiled a new G Suite Enterprise edition with extra security, monitoring and archiving features designed to appeal to the enterprise market.
G Suite is the default alternative to Office 365 for those enterprises not wanting to be locked into Microsoft for document creation and email, and with 3 million paying business customers it has a significant market presence. It doesn't have the same enterprise credibility that Microsoft has gradually (and sometimes painfully) built up over the years, but at least the vendor now shows signs that it recognizes the importance of doing so.
Like Microsoft, Google offers a broad portfolio of communication and collaboration tools that work more or less seamlessly with its content platform. So far so good. But despite its collaboration-friendly document creation capabilities, it still, like Microsoft, lacks a 'collaboration canvas' (notwithstanding its earlier foray with Google Wave).
Which brings us to Dropbox. The one content-centric vendor that has both file sync and a collaboration canvas. Its main weakness is that it doesn't have all the enterprise-strength capabilities that rivals Microsoft and Box offer — but it's making big strides to catch up, and its sync functionality is firmly targeted at the enterprise market — although it's currently available only under an early access program.
Meanwhile, as CTO Aditya Agarwal explained in a recent diginomica exclusive interview, Dropbox pitches its viral ease-of-use as an important selling point for enterprise adoption:
We’re not focused on catering to the CIO’s whims. We’re focused on building software that is usable, that is simple, and is going to be the end user’s love. Once we satisfy those things, we believe that we are way closer to [delivering higher productivity] than before.
Dropbox Paper comes closest to fulfilling the goal I described in part one of this series, Towards a unified theory of enterprise collaboration:
... to create a platform that’s able to break down the boundaries — of documents, tools and applications — to enable truly frictionless communication and task completion.
Dropbox Paper doesn't create documents so much as infinitely permeable containers that associate conversations, notes, content, transactions, applications and people. People can search across all of these associated items, while Sync puts the content wherever people find it easiest to access. It provides just enough structure to allow people to organize their collaboration without getting in the way. That's very powerful.
But there's more ...
Out of all these players, my take is that Dropbox currently has the edge in terms of its feature set but lags on enterprise credibility against more established contenders such as Microsoft and Google. But we're not done yet — we've only covered messaging and content.
There's still much to say about applications and teams, with more contenders to evaluate, including Salesforce, Atlassian and a few other well-known names. That discussion — along with my assessment of where the trends are headed — will have to wait for part three (and indeed four and five) of this series.