You knew it had to happen.
A year ago, file storage and collaboration service Box hired Sam Schillace, the creator of cloud-based document creation tool Writely, which later became Google Docs, the cornerstone of Google Apps. At first, Apps was considered a joke, way behind on features and suitable only for individuals and small businesses. Eventually, it made enough inroads into enough enterprises that Microsoft targeted Apps in its sales process and created its own cloud-based competitors, Office Web Apps and Office 365. It's a classic tale of disruption.
Today, Box announced that it's starting down the same road as Google, adding document creation to its cloud-based file storage and collaboration service. The new Box Notes feature is just entering private beta, and it's Web-only at this phase -- a major drawback given Box's stated intention to become the collaboration tool of choice for the cloud-plus-mobile world -- but it's a clear statement of intention.
Way Behind Word -- On Purpose
In terms of features, Box Notes will launch leagues behind Microsoft Word. It's really more of a note-taking app -- akin to OneNote -- than a full word processor, although it does have basic formatting features.
Rather, the most important aspects are real-time concurrent editing, annotations, and a strong social element -- for instance, small visual avatars tell you exactly who's working on which parts of a file at a given time.
Schillace said that Box is trying to think of document creation the way Apple thought about smartphones when it began designing the iPhone -- by thinking hard about what to leave out. "Everybody was trying to squeeze the desktop into a mobile device, like PalmOS or Danger... It was funky and weird, and didn't quite work right. Apple started making choices about what to put in and what to leave out, and it worked much better for that form factor."
He believes document creation is now in the same phase as mobile phones were seven years ago. Traditional word processing was invented for a world when information workers wrote business letters and mailed them back and forth. That started to become a niche scenario with the advent of email and other forms of online communication. It's become completely ridiculous with the mobile web.
"It would be really miserable if you had to write up every email you wrote as a formal business letter," said Schillace. "Think about doing that with all your texts, it would be ridiculous. That artifact is actively getting in the way where documents are just carriers for the business intent, the social intent, the communications."
Others are thinking along the same lines, particularly Quip, a social-mobile word processing app that launched last month under the leadership of former Facebook CTO (and former Googler) Bret Taylor. Schillace admitted he was "a little annoyed" when he heard about Quip because Box had been working on Notes for many months by that time.
But Shillace believes there's room for multiple players, saying several times that document creation is "not a zero sum game."
As far as Google goes, he believes Box's enterprise focus will help it stand apart. "If I wanted to compete with Google Docs I'd do Google Docs again," he said. "We're deeper into the platform end and enterprise support than Google Docs. Enterprise is a bit of a messy game, and Google doesn't like things that don't scale that well, they like things to be more automated. There are lots of ways we can add value and be part of their ecosystem to solve real problems. We partner with them and want to be integrated with them."
So once Box Notes is done, will Box turn its attention to disrupting other parts of the Office suite? Schillace says no to Excel -- it's too specialized and well-entrenched as a platform for financial workers, although there are particular use cases (like using Excel as a simple ad hoc database) that might be interesting.
And although Schillace personally believes that "PowerPoint should die in a fire," Box has no plans to go after it any time soon.
Expect Box Notes to be a big focus at this year's BoxWorks conference, which kicks off later today in San Francisco. I'll be on hand to cover any more news from the show and talk to some Box customers.