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Cloud Storage Meets Social Software In New Box.net For SMBs

Most people know Box.net for its free online storage service, but for the past year, the company has been remaking itself into a content management provider for small and midsize companies. And on Thursday it's adding social-software features and a people-oriented interface in an attempt to create a centralized workspace for the sharing of content and information within a company.
Most people know Box.net for its free online storage service, but for the past year, the company has been remaking itself into a content management provider for small and midsize companies. And on Thursday it's adding social-software features and a people-oriented interface in an attempt to create a centralized workspace for the sharing of content and information within a company.It's a noble goal. Many small companies have too many places to store and share information. Here at TechWeb, for example, we've got a bunch of shared servers, ftp servers, a corporate wiki, internal blogs, project management software where you can post documents, and a completely separate intranet, and I'm probably forgetting something.

I suspect that's fairly typical, but while there's a good reason behind each of those applications, users don't always know where to go for the information they need.

Box.net's VP of marketing Jen Grant contends that "You shouldn't have to have your content in so many places in order to get your work done." That makes sense to me, but which application is the one that can do it all?

Box.net's approach to solving that problem involves enhancing its base storage and content management solution with new social software features and an upgraded interface. According to Grant -- recently arrived from Google -- the company has attracted 50,000 business customers (compared to 2 million users of its free consumer service), at companies ranging from 3 or 4 employees up to several hundred workers, though she says the software can scale to support up to approximately 1,000 users. The sweet spot, she says, is companies without a lot of IT resources, but who just need to solve a problem. (Larger companies, Grant says, are often looking for specific features that Box.net does not yet offer.)

In its drive into the business market, Box.net has added an adminstration console to control how users access the system, inlcuding version history and reporting functions. But storage is becoming a commodity, Grant acknowledges, so the company is adding social functionality because "fundamentally, content is what brings people together in business. We want to beef up the connections between people, because it's not just about the file."

See InformationWeek's coverage of Box.net enhancements.

What does that mean, exactly? In addition to a new user interface, it includes adding a profile page for each user with an activity feed of everything that user has done, beefing up the collaboration tools with new discussion capabilities, and adding bookmarks that can link to assets outside the box.net system. (The new features will be bundled into the company's offerings starting Thursday.)

boxnet The new Box.net profile page.

"We're not trying to be a new social network," Grant says, "we are already in the flow" of people sharing and using files. There are already lots of places to work and share content, "our solution stays within the flow of everyday work."

Still, the number of choices of where to work and where to store files means lots of competition for Box.net, including tradtional, server-based content management companies like Documentum; project management software like Quickbase; and social software providers like SocialText and Jive's Clearspace.

But Grant claims Box.net is no longer competing with shared storage services. "We think we've moved beyond that. The key isn't storage, it's what you do after that," she says. And she cites her company's "laser focus on the sub-enterprise market" as another differentiator.

Eventually, Box.net hopes to add better discovery tools to make it easy to find and re-use additional resources that pertain to the project you're working on, even if you don't know where they might be stored -- or if they even exist.

That would be pretty cool, but right now the jury's still out on which application, or even which type of sharing application, will ultimately become the primary shared workspace.