'It's all about focus' - Dropbox rebrands its app as Spaces, adds AI-powered features

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 25, 2019
Dropbox Spaces aims to bring digital teamwork and tools together more efficiently to help knowledge workers spend less time on busywork and focus on the stuff that matters

Drew Houston, CEO, Dropbox speaks at Work in Progress 2019
Drew Houston, Dropbox

At its first Work in Progress customer event in San Francisco today, cloud collaboration vendor Dropbox announced general availability of the shared workspace app first launched in June, and unveiled the new name Dropbox Spaces for those shared workspaces. It also added a raft of new features to Dropbox, several based on machine intelligence, along with other significant updates to collaboration and administration functions.

The overall theme is focus — removing much of the busywork and interruptions that get in the way of productive work today. Opening the conference, Dropbox CEO and founder Drew Houston lamented the current state of digital tools and their impact on those whose work depends on having some calm space to think through big questions:

What if Einstein was alive today? Would we still understand relativity? Maybe there are other breakthroughs that would have happened by now.

The proliferation of digital applications has reached a level where they've ceased to become an aid to productivity, and it was that realization that had spurred the creation of the new Dropbox Spaces, he said:

What if your workspace actually helped you focus instead of distracting you? What if it calmed you down instead of stressing you out? What if your workspace were actually smart?

Well, that's exactly what we're building. The smart workspace. A calmer and more focused work environment that helps you stay organized and helps you focus on the work that matters.

New features in Dropbox Spaces

Dropbox Spaces retains the workspace features announced in June, with the ability to view cloud files from online services such as G Suite and Office 365 alongside local files that have been synced to Dropbox, as well as links to web pages and online resources such as Trello boards. People can be added or at-mentioned to progress teamwork. A description of the workspace along with key tasks and files can be pinned to a header area, while a comment stream alongside shows recent team activity.

Significant changes added today include the ability to include Dropbox Paper documents into the shared workspace — an important feature for many existing enterprise users of Dropbox — new intelligent search features, including image search which uses machine intelligence to identify contents of images, and a new 'For You' tab that uses machine intelligence to surface personalized suggestions and details as you work.

A new Dropbox enterprise console provides centralized, organization-wide visibility for IT admins. There's also a dashboard providing an overview of Dropbox usage across the organization, giving visibility, for example, into patterns of how content is being shared externally.

Dropbox also announced a $5 million investment in and partnership with 'SaaSOps' vendor BetterCloud, which specializes in centralizing and automating management of multiple best-of-breed SaaS applications. Following an announcement at its own user conference today, BetterCloud now offers native integrations to 41 leading SaaS applications and has also opened up an integration center where customers can share custom-built integrations to its API.

Other Dropbox integrations unveiled today and set to roll out in the next few months include the ability to map Slack channels to Dropbox Spaces, so that any content posted to the Slack channel is automatically shared in Dropbox; creation of new Trello cards directly within Dropbox and the ability to see and edit Dropbox files directly from a Trello card; and an option to automatically store Zoom meeting transcripts in Dropbox, where their content becomes searchable. A new extension to e-signature platform HelloSign, which Dropbox acquired at the beginning of the year, makes document signing available directly from within the Dropbox workspace.

Collective brainpower

All of this serves a higher mission, said Houston as he concluded his keynote. Recalling a conversation with an engineering lead at SpaceX, he said he'd realized that inefficient digital collaboration is holding back some of the most important endeavors humanity is engaged in today.

I couldn't help thinking that maybe we're spilling the collective brainpower of a generation on the ground.

For all our tools and technology, it feels like so many of the shiny new things that our industry is building are unintentionally making it all worse, making it harder for us. We've got to fix that. Maybe more importantly, we've got to get our sanity back. Because all this isn't just inefficient. It's also making us unhappy and burning us out ...

Every important challenge we face, from landing on Mars to sustainable energy — whatever we care about — depends on our being able to organize things for knowledge workers and harness our collective intelligence. So in many ways, our mission is to enable all these other teams to achieve their missions faster.

My take

As I wrote back in June, Dropbox faces quite a few challenges in winning market acceptance for its new app and the shared workspace concept now known as Dropbox Spaces. Today's announcements round out the offering in important ways, and I remain impressed by its scope as a potential contender as the primary collaborative canvas for the enterprise.

But it's one thing to bring a product to market, quite another to drive adoption and customer success. I've heard some customer stories today and will send more time with company executives tomorrow so I'll have more to report on this. However first impressions from conversations with customers are that it's still very early days in terms of adoption.

As Houston says, these are problems we need to solve to avoid some of the digital burnout people are suffering. We have the tools to help us all work better, but they're not doing it for us yet. Full credit to Dropbox for trying to make that happen.

[Updated Sept 27th with minor changes to reflect that Dropbox Spaces is the new name for the shared workspace experience within the new Dropbox app and is not technically speaking a rebrand of the app itself.]

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