Dropbox goes to [Project] Infinite… and beyond!
Dropbox’s announcements at Dropbox Open seek to strengthen the vendor’s enterprise credentials with new product capabilities, and a more attractive platform.
This week Dropbox brought its Dropbox Open event to London. The company has been keen to grow its enterprise credentials since launching Dropbox for Business three years ago, and this customer-friendly showcase saw execs take to the stage with some key announcements to further their cause.
First, though, a note about the Dropbox pitch. We noted in our On the radar report last year that the company then still felt the need to focus on the case for cloud-based file sync-and-share (as an alternative to sharing via email, FTP, USB stick etc.). We thought that was a little surprising, given the degree to which SaaS file storage was already a pretty well-understood concept in the enterprise community. At the time, its competitors were happy to move on (notwithstanding the rolling argument for hybrid cloud / on-premise Enterprise File Sync and Share solutions), instead talking about why their particular flavour of EFSS was the most enterprise-friendly. Dropbox, however, seemed to be coming to the enterprise party with explanations of EFSS from first principles, rather than attempting to differentiate itself as the most seamlessly integrated, the most geo-specific, the most certified and compliant, etc. Instead it focused on highlighting its colossal reach (now more than half a billion users worldwide) and awareness among individual consumers, with a smattering of enterprise friendly controls. Cue Dropbox now touting itself as the solution to ‘the Dropbox problem’.
Fast-forward to this week’s event, and unexpectedly the same “why EFSS” messages set the tone in in the warm-up deck, but with the company now adding some further enterprise-friendly and consumer cross-over twists.
Dropbox made headlines earlier this year when it announced it was bringing all its customers’ content in-house (in the US) as part of Project Magic Pocket. Although seemingly out of step with the prevailing mood amongst cloud storage providers to build out their infrastructure through partnering, the move arguably brings with it potential for cost control and savings it can pass on to customers. It also promises reduced latency (without the public cloud round trip) to keep Dropbox’s sync service at the top of its game. But what of the (now 75%) of Dropbox users outside the US? Well, 39% of those are now in Europe, and the company has partnered with AWS to provide hosting options in the latter’s German datacentre, going some way towards satisfying EU customers’ data sovereignty concerns. There have been no announcements of similar arrangements in other AWS regions yet (in contrast to Box’s recently-announced Box Zones partnerships with AWS and IBM, which launched with four sites spread across Europe and Asia-Pacific regions). However, expect the company to pay close attention to customer demand if it looks like data geo-specificity proves to be a genuine global deal-breaker for its business customers.
Another point we made last year was that Dropbox appeared to be at a crossroads in terms of how much to innovate the core product itself, and how much to focus on making the platform more attractive for partners to step up and provide the sort of business application integrations and functionality which enterprise customers now expect. It’s one thing to maintain a footing in content-sharing by making it easier to exploit and legitimise shadow IT adoption, but to truly move up the value chain EFSS vendors need to put that content platform at the centre of much wider business workflows. It’s a story Box has been leading with for a while, and now Dropbox too has turned the spotlight on its own platform credentials with the announcement of a new File Properties API. It joins existing APIs for data storage, sync, and core functionalities, and should open the content up to much richer access from within custom apps (though the company’s prior focus on product has meant it’s now having to play a bit of catch-up on the platform front).
The big “coming soon” trailer at Dropbox Open, though, was the announcement of what the company’s calling ‘Project Infinite’. It’s a feature that will add access to unsync’ed Dropbox folders within Windows and Mac file managers alongside sync’ed ones, in the same interface. When a file is accessed, Dropbox begins sync’ing it; before then, the cloud-stored file’s still visible (albeit labelled with a cloud icon), providing additional context in much the same way as the overall folder view in Dropbox’s web interface does.
It’s a recognition that users like familiar folder interfaces on their desktops, and enterprise customers tend to have far more files available to them on their organisation’s cloud storage than they’d ever hope to have space to sync onto a local disk. Yet sync’ed local storage is important component of offline use cases for workers in the field in low-bandwidth environments (or languishing in ‘flight safe’ mode on long haul flights).
The demand for enterprise capabilities like this haven’t gone unnoticed at rival Box either. The company announced its intention to “bring the cloud to your desktop” with its acquisition of Streem (a start-up with a product that mounts a cloud drive on the desktop) midway through 2014. That particular capability hasn’t made it into the Box product as yet (and Dropbox’s Project Infinite doesn’t have a date for general availability either), but it’s clear that both companies are betting on technologies that blend the cloud and local experience for offline desktop users to give them that “downloaded Spotify playlist” experience.
How soon before either Dropbox or Box (or any other vendors in the space, for that matter!) is able to make content sync smarter and more proactive – say, deploying some form of content intelligence to pre-emptively sync files that are likely to be needed on an upcoming trip, or suggesting a content ‘playlist’ based on files other users involved in a project are accessing, etc.? Despite many of them talking of grand plans for content analytics, there’s currently little action anywhere beyond compliance reporting and fine-tuning storage configurations. The first vendor that’s able to deliver ‘sync that thinks’ will likely breathe new life into side of the market that’s been fast commodifying, as vendors focus on content management, collaboration, and workflow integrations to cement their enterprise positions.