Open Box: why the cloud collaboration pioneer thinks it’s time to be a platform company

Kenny MacIver Profile picture for user kmaciver May 12, 2015
Summary:
The opening up of Box will enable customers and development partners to embed the tool’s key capabilities in their own applications, says CEO Aaron Levie.

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There’s a certain confidence that comes with sitting on a bank balance of some $330 million. And cloud content collaboration vendor Box (never a company troubled by self-doubt) is showing ever ounce of that four months on from its high-profile IPO.

At the London leg of its rolling world tour last week, CEO and co-founder Aaron Levie offered a series of proof points that the 10-year-old company is maturing fast: a string of customer deals indicating the move from departmental (often shadow-IT) adoption of its tool to company-wide, strategic roll out; a growing list of vertical industry options for the Box service, plus a handful more in the pipeline; a bunch of small, quick-fire acquisitions that add advanced content types that extend the reach of the SaaS offering; and a push for further growth globally that is being backed by the promise of Box’s first data centers outside the US.

But the development that really stood out from Levie’s London briefings is Box’s decision to move beyond a sole focus on its own tool and open up its underlying platform so customers and partners can make the Box capabilities part of their own applications.

Platform play

Unveiled in late April at BoxDev 2015, the opening up of the platform is something of a watershed for the company, according to Levie:

You are going to see us more and more over time as a platform company. Even though we have world-class [user] experience in the products we create directly, we are going to open up all the technology that we are building for any third-party application to leverage as well. Today we are primarily seen and known as an application, but the pie [chart] of how Box gets utilized will expand pretty considerably.

The aim is to widen the applications footprint of the Box experience, as he calls it:

The Box Developer Edition lets both customers and partners develop applications using all of the technology we’ve created — our workflow technology, our content management software, our encryption capabilities — and to embed those experiences into the applications they are building. So if you are building an application for commercial real estate or healthcare or financial services, where you might need to communicate [documents] back and forth, then Box can now be embedded completely, seamlessly in the back-end in those applications and help drive much better new digital experiences in the enterprise.

Vertical lift

Aaron Levie 2015
Aaron Levie, CEO of Box: “How Box gets utilized will expand pretty considerably.”

The move, which echoes the early stages of Salesforce.com’s strategy to build an ecosystem around its Force.com platform, is certainly going to help accelerate the company’s goal of meeting content collaboration needs of specific industry verticals. Start-ups such as PlanGrid in construction software, Symphony in financial services and Hightower with its commercial real estate apps are all building on top of the platform. That is separate from its own Box for Industries initiative announced at September’s BoxWorks conference, which saw it start to deliver bespoke versions of the applications service for the retail, media, healthcare and entertainment sectors.

In the last few months that program has been extended to include financial services, where industry-relevant features have included enforced document retention and the ability to watermark documents (and, shortly, video clips). But Box has other industries in its sights too, including education, manufacturing, energy, CPG, construction and government, says Levie.

That government sector push was signalled pretty clearly in March when it recruited one of the US governments highest-profile CIOs. Sonny Hashmi led IT at the US General Services Administration, and now talks of helping federal agencies use Box “to save millions of dollars by moving off legacy systems as well as to create a much more agile and iterative approach to government IT, all while ensuring the protection and security of critical content.” His new Twitter profile: “Govie at Box.”

Europe content hubs

There are also hints that its public sector ambitions stretch beyond US shores. At the London event Levie revealed that Box had plans to create its first data centers outside of the US — a level of local processing that’s a prerequisite for many government agencies nervous about document collaboration outside of their own borders.

Levie caveats the data center decision with the argument that for the vast majority of customers the existing US-based data centers, coupled with the proprietary acceleration technology it uses in international locations to boost document movement, are not only sufficient they are the foundation for a uniform and transparent service:

You will probably see [European] data centers either in the cloud or directly from us in the next 12 to 18 month. But our system is actually architected as a global collaboration platform to make sure the [user experience] is as seamless as possible. So even if there are data centers internationally we don’t want users to have to run into weird experiences where they are choosing which storage zone they are using.

The new data center locations would address “only a couple” of use cases, he maintains:

We’re sensitive to some data residency requirements [of some customers]. But right now with things like our encryption key technology and other efforts in the security space we can give customers way more control, way more visibility into their data than any other platform, whether it is in region or on-premise. So far [US-only data centers] has not been an impediment to being able to work with a pretty significant set of international customers. It is also important to remember that most of our customers, such as GE or Schneider Electric, are using Box because they want to share [content] on a global basis. So it’s important that we have a global platform first and foremost.

My take

As much as IT buyers (and indeed users) lavish praise on Box, the company’s “tool” (as Aaron Levie still often calls it) is still just that in the eyes of many IT decision-makers. So the opening up of its platform to enable partners and customers to incorporate Box capabilities into their own applications is just one of a series efforts to extend the company’s franchise and make it a more strategic enterprise player. Acquisitions are likely to contribute to that — along the lines of those in recent months, which have seen the grafting on small, specialist teams in areas such as cloud-based 3D modeling (Verold) and cross-device content security (Subspace). Indeed,  the company sees ample opportunity in its on-going disruption of the content management space without having to raid its cash pile or leverage its newly liquid stock.

Main image: Fotolia; Portrait image: Creative Commons (Noam Galai)

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