Will 2017 be the year that digital collaboration grows up? The year is certainly kicking off with a series of notable product enhancements by leading vendors in the space. This week Box launched a major update to its Notes collaboration canvas — more on that in a moment. Last week saw the launch of a major overhaul to teamwork tool Slack, including the long-awaited arrival of threaded conversations. Next week it's expected to be the turn of Dropbox to unveil new functionality. Meanwhile the recently launched Microsoft Teams becomes generally available this quarter. I could go on, but you get the picture.
Suffice to say that digital technology offers more ways than ever for people to interact and share with colleagues, customers and stakeholders. These new patterns of collaboration are an essential success ingredient in a modern digital business. But despite (or more accurately, because of) this plethora of products jockeying for our attention, there's no standard toolset or accepted methodology for making it work well. We're all floundering in a digital ocean of uncharted collaboration options.
Part of the problem is that each vendor comes at collaboration from a different starting point. As I wrote when Box Notes was first announced back in 2013, this leaves all of them lacking a complete offering:
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.
Since then, the functionality has expanded and yet users have become even more demanding, wanting seamless connection into messaging, conferencing and video, as well as closer integration with mainstream enterprise applications — and all the while reducing dependence on email.
Where workers spend their time
Meeting all of these requirements is a tall order, but the potential rewards are immense. The holy grail for vendors is to make collaboration a mainstream application in its own right, rather than an add-on to something else. People hate having to skip from one application to another to get things done. They prefer it when they can complete a task in a single virtual workspace — which can vary between a frequently used desktop application for office-based workers to a simple messaging interface for those who are constantly on the move.
Mainstream enterprise application vendors are wise to this — or at least, those who operate from the cloud. This is why Salesforce last year acquired Quip and why Workday recently added collaboration tools into its HCM and finance applications, at the same time as announcing integration to Microsoft Office 365. They want their applications to be where workers spend most of their connected time.
But collaboration vendors don't want to be an add-on service to some other virtual workspace, they want to be the go-to hub that other vendors' apps feed into. This is the goal that Box Notes, Dropbox Paper and Microsoft Teams are all targeting. The extent to which they succeed will not only determine their own destiny. Whoever wins — whether they are collaboration specialists or more generic in scope — will also define the predominant collaboration patterns of the digital era.
Unlike other vendors, both Box and Dropbox have approached this challenge from the exact same heritage of starting out as online file storage and sharing providers. Their task has been to weave a collaboration fabric around those original functions that is sufficiently compelling and productive that it attracts people to do their work there. The angle that each has taken reflects their respective worldviews. So it's interesting to compare the new iteration of Box Notes to its close rival Dropbox Paper, which launched last August in public beta after a year in private testing with selected customers.
I happened to meet Dropbox CTO Aditya Agarwal during a visit to London two weeks ago and had the opportunity then to ask him about Paper. His comments illuminate some of the differences in approach between the rival products. Box declined a request to make a spokesperson available this week to talk about the new release of Notes.
One thing that's clear is that Dropbox and Box are both (if you'll forgive the pun) on the same page in explaining the role of, respectively, Paper and Notes as a collaboration 'canvas'. Here's Agarwal's definition of Paper:
A Paper document is less a word editor and it is essentially a canvas for ideas, that you can throw ideas on, that you can get feedback on it. You can coordinate and collaborate.
Sam Shillace, who led the creation of Box Notes having previously co-founded Google Docs predecessor Writely (and who returned to Google in June last year), spoke in similar terms back in 2013, describing how being connected changes the nature of documents:
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.
But whereas Box positions Notes as a platform for connecting between files and people, Agarwal describes Dropbox Paper as more of a connective fabric that opens up access to what's within those files. Elaborating on how Dropbox sees Paper's role, he hints at a future direction for the platform as well as current capabilities:
In the past, your file system was capable of storing any kind of data, whether it be a Microsoft Word document, a JPEG file, a PSD document from Adobe. When I think of a Paper document, I think of it as like the modern container, for anything you want to put into it.
Our goal is you can throw whatever you want into Paper and it can store any kind of data that you want. Whether it be a Workday job requisition, a Salesforce CRM file, whatever be the case, we understand it. Then we can provide organization and search across your entire data set, for your whole company, through that.
Removing all the friction of accessing file contents and tracking interactions is a prime objective of both platforms. Agarwal says that Paper substitutes for various different internal communication channels at Dropbox:
It's really transformed the way that we work at Dropbox. Prior to having Dropbox Paper, we were all relying on some combination of email, chat, traditional documents, to coordinate our work. After Paper, we're really working in this fascinating new way ...
If we can get the whole world to collaborate and work the same way as we are at Dropbox, what that means is that we would actually significantly and meaningfully cut down on the amount of email that we get, the amount of short pings that we get, about all of our collaboration. I think it's a while to get there but I believe we can get the whole world there.
Creating that unified collaboration workspace will be an antidote to the various digital tools people are currently adopting within the enterprise, often to the detriment of productivity, says Agarwal, taking a sideswipe at Slack:
What you're seeing is a massive proliferation of these niche tools at the periphery. You're seeing a massive proliferation of context-switching, attention-reducing tools — tools, honestly, like Slack. Basically, we are no longer able to get focused work done.
The way that we position ourselves at Dropbox, is that, okay, we're seeing a lot more tools, we're seeing a lot less attention. How can we build things that actually help people get work done? — in terms of building a modern substrate, a common layer, that allows us to provide all the base things that people want, whether it be organization, whether it be search — that allow people to find the data that they need to get the job done and also to self-organize.
At the same time, Agarwal emphasizes the importance of creating an open platform that other tools can plug into:
I see very few people trying to take a interoperable, open approach to this. Most of the companies just try to build walled gardens. I think that the walled garden approach is just so fundamentally wrong, in a world where there's this proliferation of new technology and new tools to get work done.
There are big similarities between Box Notes and Dropbox Paper but also important differences. Agarwal's comments bring out Dropbox's vision of effectively making the boundaries between documents and files transparent, to make it easier to access and work with the information within. There's an analogy there to its approach to file sharing, which started out by making the boundaries transparent between separate file storage locations.
Box Notes is a more of a discrete document concept, and this week's launch has been focused on practical matters such as making it easier to find recently opened Notes documents and being able to work in Notes on the desktop as well as in a web browser.
Box will rightly argue that these product enhancements reflect its stronger focus on enterprise use cases, at the same time as rehearsing the sophisticated security and governance functionality it has developed for the enterprise market. While Dropbox has been making up lost ground there, with last summer's launch of its AdminX features a significant milestone in that journey, Agarwal admits the vendor has more to do there — I'll have more on that when I publish the rest of the interview tomorrow.
Finally, Box also has a platform play of its own, although this is more focused on partners building on top of its platform than linking into it. But Agarwal's comments on that score were made in the context of dicussing Microsoft rather than Box specifically.
For now, it's far too early to call a winner in this race just yet. But the starting gun has certainly been fired, and it looks like this year we'll see some important strides being made by some of the top contenders.