Will workers be wooed by Dropbox collaboration tools?

Dropbox's new collaboration tools are aimed at increasing the file-sharing company's footprint in the enterprise. Better now than never, industry experts say. Also in Searchlight: Ethereum fund on life support; China builds the fastest supercomputer.

Dropbox signaled it's serious about becoming a top collaboration platform for businesses -- and that it's willing to partner up to get there.

The company known for its file sharing and storage said this week that it is adding features to its iOS application that will help the business workforce collaborate better. One new feature in particular that is attracting interest already -- a document scanning tool -- uses a smartphone's camera to scan receipts, whiteboards, sticky notes and other physical documents; the tool then allows users to store scanned documents directly to Dropbox and make them searchable.

"It's a natural progression for Dropbox," said Cheryl McKinnon, Forrester principal analyst, referring to the new features. And it's a critical move. "It's really key for them as they … become an increasingly credible choice for companies that want to use them for both collaboration and also for systems of record."

The image capture and optical character recognition technology is not unique to Dropbox, with Box and Evernote offering similar tools, she said. Still, it sends a message to enterprise customers that the company is serious about bridging the physical and digital world and expanding its potential uses to the enterprise.

"It plays to that world of a lot more enterprise-focused use cases -- image capture, expense claim management, all that kind of stuff where paper still flows in and out," she said.

Friendly competition

While the scan and search mobile tool generated the most buzz, Dropbox's newly formed industry partnerships may be the biggest draw for enterprise customers, the analysts I spoke with said.

Several of the new features announced this week, for instance, will require Dropbox to work closely with Microsoft, one of its biggest rivals in the document storage market. These include a plus button that lets users create new Microsoft Word, PowerPoint or Excel documents on their phones, and the ability to import scanned documents into those newly created Office files.

This "coopetition" with rivals is par for the course to staying competitive these days, McKinnon said. This is especially the case with Dropbox's alliance with Microsoft, whose Office suite still rules in the workplace. Dropbox also stands to benefit from its partnership with Slack, an emerging business communication tool popular in the tech community, she said.

"[Slack] is not really good at handling files and documents, and that's where Dropbox can bring some value: that controlled, secured, version control ability to handle files, is much better than Slack [or] in any kind of push chat system or messaging system," McKinnon said.

The partnerships are enabled through Dropbox's API structure, a capability the company has been building on for a long time, McKinnon said. Whereas before, its APIs allowed users to add external tools to Dropbox (for example, Lockbox for client-side encryption, and backup service Backupify), now the company's APIs also offer business users uniformity -- consistent storage, security, file access and folder structure for a wide variety of popular business apps.

"Whether it's Slack tomorrow or Salesforce the next day, it just means that [Dropbox] can be that consistent content store that a lot of organizations can rely upon," she added.

Whether the company's push to be more enterprise collaboration-ready proves successful is an open question. Dropbox is striving to find its place in a crowded document storage services market, and big enterprise vendors like Google, Microsoft and IBM don't make it easy, said Alan Lepofsky, VP and principal analyst at Constellation Research. Building a large partner ecosystem, coupled with more industry specialization, could be its best bet.

"Continuing the focus on [partnerships] and continuing to focus on specific industry verticals -- the healthcares, finances and medicals of the world -- and building specific applications using their new capture technology, like medical expense reports, financial documentation and legal capture … is something that will serve them well," Lepofsky said.

CIO news roundup for week of June 20

Dropbox's enterprise push wasn't the only tech news this week. Here's what else grabbed headlines:

  • Bitcoin competitor going the way of Titanic? Fallout from last week's cryptocurrency theft of 3.6 million Ethereum coins from DAO (valued at around $60 million) rages on -- but I dare you to understand what exactly is at stake. DAO, which stands for decentralized autonomous organization, had raised $160 million to fund projects for Ethereum, a digital currency. Now, backers of the victimized DAO fund are working to block or recover the stolen "ether" by "rolling back the blockchain in a way that would invalidate the stolen ether," reports Ars Technica. The "soft fork" of the Ethereum protocol, which requires approval by a majority of Ethereum "miners," however, was met with stiff resistance from some in the Ethereum community, who see the rescue plan as an abuse of power.
  • The world's fastest supercomputer: With a Linpack mark of 93 petaflops, China's Sunway TaihuLight won the world's fastest supercomputer title on Monday. Developed by China's National Research Center of Parallel Computer Engineering and Technology, it uses microprocessors which were developed locally (i.e., not with Intel chips). Currently running at the National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, it is roughly five times more powerful than its U.S. counterpart Titan that now ranks third.
  • Drone on: A new Federal Aviation Administration rule on drones allows commercial operators in the U.S. to fly drones without a pilot's license; a knowledge test and a certificate will suffice. The rule goes into effect late August.
  • Mark Zuckerberg takes cover: Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook post, intended to promote Instagram's latest milestone, ought to perk up CIO ears. Viewer Chris Olson noticed that Zuckerberg's laptop, which appears in the background of the posted photo, had an interesting workaround: the laptop's webcam and microphone jack were covered with tape. Paranoia or sound security practice?
  • Periscope on Washington: House Democrats staging a sit-in demonstration demanding a vote on gun-control measures took to live-streaming on Wednesday. When C-SPAN was forced to shut down its cameras once the session was adjourned by House Republicans, demonstrators turned to Periscope and Facebook Live to provide the nation with real-time views of their sit-in. Meantime, Google-owned YouTube said on Thursday that it is adding live mobile video streaming to its app, which will be available to all users later this year.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on the Microsoft-LinkedIn deal and the recent Cloud Expo.

Assistant editor Mekhala Roy contributed to this week's news roundup.

Next Steps

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