Box Reaches Out to Developers in a Bid to Promote Its Cloud File Sharing Service

11/21/11Follow @wroush

Box, the Palo Alto file-sharing startup that recently snagged another $81 million in venture funding, has started to throw around the “E” word: ecosystem. At a media event in San Francisco last Thursday night, the company announced the formation of a community program called the Box Innovation Network—abbreviated /bin, a clever reference to a common name for a Unix directory containing executable files.

The bottom line here is that Box wants more outside developers and companies to build apps that take advantage of Box’s own cloud-based file storage system. So it’s getting serious about creating and sharing the application programming interfaces, or APIs, needed to do that. And it’s ready to put some money behind the program—Box said it has set aside $2 million to support faster software development by selected /bin members.

Box CEO Aaron Levie calls /bin an “open ecosystem,” in contrast to supposedly closed systems, such as Microsoft’s Sharepoint, that aren’t as easily accessible to third-party developers who want to add their own features. “Slow-moving enterprise software giants have produced very little innovation in recent years, and their closed ecosystems have made it all but impossible for outside players to create compelling experiences for customers on legacy systems,” said Levie, who never misses an opportunity to criticize Microsoft, Oracle, and other big incumbents.

But what kinds of “compelling experiences” does Box think its own partners will create using the company’s APIs? To find out, I talked Friday with Chris Yeh, whose title at Box is vice president of platform. Yeh joined Box this summer from Yahoo, where he spent four years running developer programs and managing community products such as Yahoo Groups and the Delicious social boomarking tool. Here’s an edited writeup of our chat.

Xconomy: At what point did Box start to think of itself as a platform or an ecosystem, not just a service?

Box Vice President of Platform Chris Yeh

Chris Yeh: I think Aaron has been talking about Box as a platform company for quite some time now, whether internally or externally. I think what Aaron realized is that Box’s core business has a long runway of growth, but you look at what the company really needs to do in the long run to become dominant, it needs to evolve toward being a platform company. Now is the right time to invest in this part of the business.

If you think about what we do at the very lowest level—storage of files for sharing purposes in the cloud—that is a function that is fairly low on the stack of functions that people need. We think there is a real opportunity to bring in third-party developers in a way that grows the ecosystem around us and drives business value for the company. When I came aboard, the mission was to push the pedal to the floor. That means my responsibility at Box is to do a few things. First, I own the product roadmap for our platform. We’re hiring engineers as fast as we can into the platform team. We have grown by 3x or 4x already. So we are starting to add some muscle. The other side of my job is to get out into the ecosystem and meet as many people as possible and make people aware of what we are doing and how they can integrate. So you are seeing the push within Box to start doing this.

X: How are companies using Box in their applications? Give me some of your favorite examples.

CY: The first /bin member we announced is a company called LiveOffice. They are an e-mail and file archiving company down in L.A., and they have built a legal e-discovery solution against Box. E-discovery isn’t everyone’s favorite example, but it’s one of my favorites, and somebody really needs this. We had a pharma customer who, when they heard this was even possible, asked if they could get access to the alpha or beta—they move so many files that, for their legal team, it was a barrier to expanding further. They moved it all into LiveOffice so it could be discovered and searched on.

X: How does that work on a nuts-and-bolts level? How does LiveOffice talk to Box?

CY: The LiveOffice implementation has two components. The first is an archive. When you first turn it on, LiveOffice calls Box to pull out all of the files so that the two systems are in parity and all the files in Box are mirrored properly in LiveOffice. Then it calls a new property that we haven’t announced yet called event notification—a system that notifies outside systems of changes inside Box. LiveOffice sets up a listener and listens for events it cares about, such as file version changes or deletions. Every time that happens, LiveOffice performs the actions that it needs to, from a discovery point of view. If a user deletes a file, that’s something an e-discovery system needs to know. It makes a record of which file was deleted, and it knows there is a copy in the e-discovery system.

The overall point is that we don’t produce legal e-discovery systems within Box. So the only way we are going to provide that is through a customer, at least in the beginning. This is a niche-ey solution that I don’t think we would spend our own time building right now, because other people can do it better than us. CT image scanning would be another example. We don’t provide great image rendering, so that’s a place we would partner with somebody in the healthcare vertical.

X: Those all sound like fairly simple examples, where you’re basically moving files into and out of Box. Can you imagine third-party applications that integrate Box in more elaborate ways?

CY: I think there’s a whole range of these things that we expect to see over time. NousGuide is a company that builds custom iPad apps for enterprise customers that run on top of Box. Pabst Blue Ribbon is a customer where we have built a joint application with them. Pabst has a sales force out in the field selling to customers all the time, and they have various displays and collateral that they want to show, so they wanted a custom Pabst Blue Ribbon app running on their staff’s iPads. That’s what NousGuide does, and they tie in all the functions sales people need when they are sitting with a customer.

In the future I do think we are going to see much deeper integrations happening. Even reflecting on the business cards I collected last night, we had people coming to talk to us about using Box as a backbone for a learning management system in higher education. We had folks talking about using it to supply documents to the food services industry, and people who are building medical-focused apps for doctors. There is a whole array of things that people want to do that involve files.

X: As Box expands its developer community makes it easier for third parties to do cool things with the Box service, how do you avoid the Twitter scenario? I’m talking about the generally poor relations between Twitter and outside developers. They’ve often often felt blindsided by Twitter’s decisions to take certain features and applications in-house. What if Box decides it actually does want to build an e-discovery feature or a medical imaging feature—then what?

CY: The Twitter example is very popular. It’s a very well-known example of how not to communicate that you are moving forward in the value chain. There is high awareness around that example.

I don’t think we can ever be 100 percent sure that we won’t move into a specific area; one of our speakers last night was Eric Ries, and he remarked that companies don’t really run out of cash, they run out of opportunities to pivot. So I think there may in theory be an opportunity for Box to pivot to an e-discovery solution. But where we are going to be different from Twitter is that our [developer] program is designed to be pretty high-touch. We are going to try to meet with most of the people who want to come into /bin in some form, whether it’s an e-mail or a meeting with the people directly. We will get a much better sense of what people are building.

We have so much work to do just to continue to grow our core business at the rate it’s going that the areas we want to partner around are very clear right now. It’s also obvious, having been in the company a few months, what our engineers are extremely good at doing and areas where they don’t have the skills or the charter. So I’m not saying it couldn’t be a problem in the future, but we are pretty focused on building out Box as a horizontal file- and content-sharing system, and I don’t see us moving into any of the spaces you are talking about.

X: You announced on Thursday that Box is going to invest up to $2 million in companies building applications that integrate with Box. How will that fund work?

CY: We have some focus areas where we want to start, such as security. What we said is that we would take $2 million and set it aside to invest over, say, a 24-month period. When we have started doing our first investments we will have a better sense of how much and when. The idea is to invest either as an equity investment, or in a co-development, or even in IP and talent acquisition if we decide to take stuff to market. But it’s not a formal investment fund like the fbFund [Facebook's seed fund for social media startups]. It’s an amount of money we have set aside so that we can work with partners in these various forms. The whole point is to get stuff to market.

X: When Evernote started billing itself as a platform for third-party developers, it created an online directory that it called the “Trunk” to feature the new apps. Are you thinking about doing something similar at Box?

CY: We have a form of that—it’s something called the Box Apps Marketpalce that allows third-party developers and partners to make apps that run on top of Box visible to our customers. That’s a place you might see DocuSign or Google Apps or E-Fax. A user can just add E-Fax to their account, and then any file they want to send through E-Fax can be sent through an action on the file within Box. What we don’t have is a marketplace for the more complex integrations like LiveOffice, the ones that require more work to deploy. We are thinking about whether we want to extend the Box Apps Marketplace into a thing where everything built by customers can have exposure. The difference between us and Evernote is that we are so enterprise-focused. We can take bundles of apps and expose them through our sales force and get them in front of customers that way. That’s one of the benefits we provide to partners—this direct-to-market channel.

X: What kind of reactions to the new program are you getting so far?

CY: I’m super excited about getting this out the door. It’s interesting, talking to you a day after the event. I’m looking at an e-mail inbox that’s jammed with people with different ideas. So I have a different stress now than I did before launch, which is handling this volume of people coming in to talk to us. We want to do that as well as we can, as fast as possible but with a human touch.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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