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Aaron Levie

Box’s dalliance with AI foretells a broader shift in content management

As Box CEO Aaron Levie pointed out at his BoxWorks keynote this week, content management has been an evolving field since it came into being as an enterprise software concept in the 1990s.

Back in those days, the state of the art was network drives. As content spread across the organization, we saw the rise of enterprise content management. Later file sharing tools developed and finally the cloud came along and really allowed companies and individuals to share content inside and outside the organization in a much more modern mobile context.

Somewhere in the middle of that evolution Box launched and really blew up enterprise content management as we had known it, which for the most part was really about protecting content inside the firewall. As Levie told me in an interview around 2011, when the smartphone came along, and later the iPad, it really changed everything. Suddenly content was in in motion and content management needed to shift to protecting content on the move.

Only one content management vendor was really in a position to do that at the time, and that was Box, a company that was born in the cloud and understood the mobile-cloud connection much better than than its legacy counterparts who were caught flat-footed and forced to play catch-up.

This week at BoxWorks, the company’s customer conference, Box announced the next fundamental shift in content management, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to extract meaning from the content.

Attacking the new content problem

This not only changes the entire approach to managing content, it solves a fundamental content management conundrum — the more content you have, the harder it is to manage. By applying machine learning, which thrives on more content, Box is attacking the content volume problem.

Levie certainly saw the magnitude of today’s announcements and its overall impact on the industry moving forward.”It’s really a significant moment for us in terms of changing the direction for cloud content management and starting to imagine how we work with information and data using intelligence. In many respects, what we showed today is really the very early stages of how this technology will be used,” Levie told TechCrunch

It’s really a significant moment for us in terms of changing the direction for cloud content management and starting to imagine how we work with information and data using intelligence.

— Aaron Levie, Box CEO

He realizes this is the cutting edge right now, but says that the company has always tried to get in early if the technology was important enough. “What we’ve always found as a general strategy is that it’s always good to be early in a trend you think is going to have long legs. Being early in a trend that doesn’t matter is not that useful, but there is no question that machine learning and artificial intelligence will have an impact on unstructured information and workflows and the utility of that use case is obvious to us,” he said.

Walking with giants

Levie said that Box decided to take a broad open approach to artificial intelligence, partly because it’s so early and partly because there are range of large tech companies doing important work, and he doesn’t want to hitch his company’s wagon to any single approach.

“If you were to plot the amount of innovation from Google, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon and Apple in artificial intelligence and machine learning, you would see an exponential graph of the amount of innovation occurring. When you have a category where you have innovation happening that rapidly at this scale, and it’s still very early in an industry, you want to be able to take advantage of all those capabilities and all of that advancement.”

He said they also didn’t want customers pigeonholed or only getting a small amount of the innovation coming from these big vendors. “This is where building out architecture that allows for interoperability and seamless experiences across multiple intelligence platforms was so important to us. We wanted to make sure we could bring all of these advanced technologies into the platform and have them seamlessly integrated in one place,” Levie explained.

While the cloud drove down cost and increased innovation, Levie says that AI and machine learning could have an even bigger impact by changing our processes. “I think that the cloud in many cases was a way of driving down the cost of storage, driving up the scalability of these platforms and improving the user experience for collaboration and content management, but in many respects it didn’t fundamentally change the way we work with our information. And that’s where I think machine learning has the potential to impact content management as we actually begin to get new insights from our data.”

Levie stresses that today’s announcements are just a starting point. He is fully convinced that AI and machine learning is going to have a fundamental impact on the industry, and he wants his company there now to learn how to best apply this technology to Box’s tool set. He believes when you get in early to something like this it creates a flywheel effect where you learn from your customers and improve the technology as you go along.

“We saw that being in the cloud from Day One and we think the same is going to be true for AI and machine learning, which is that the companies that are early in this category have all the advantages and that’s why we wanted to make such significant bet on this space,” Levie explained.

Featured Image: Getty Images

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Aaron Levie

Dropbox and Box were never competitors

As Dropbox had its IPO moment this morning, more than 10 years after launching, we can finally put one myth to rest. Dropbox and Box were never targeting the same customers.

As Anshu Sharma, founder at Prekari, a stealth startup and former partner at Storm Venture tweeted earlier today:

Same goes for investors, analysts and journalists. If you don’t believe they’re different, consider that in Dropbox’s S-1 paperwork they filed with SEC, you will note they didn’t even list Box as a primary competitor: “We compete with Box on a more limited basis in the cloud storage market for deployments by large enterprises,” the company wrote.

They had something in common, of course, but Dropbox has always been about managing files in the cloud, while Box has been focused on enterprise content use case cases in the cloud — and that’s a very different approach.

As Shria Ovide pointed out in her analysis on Bloomberg after the filing, the S-1 also proved that Dropbox has always been a “a consumer software company with a side hustle.” That side hustle was the enterprise business. (She also pointed out on Twitter that they may be the first company to use a cupcake emoji in their S-1, which is actually kind of cool).

Consumer with a dash of enterprise

It turns out that vast majority of Dropbox’s combined business and consumer revenue of more than a $1 billion came from consumers.  Dropbox has always offered an attractive consumer storage tool. It’s well integrated into desktop OSs and it has a nice mobile tool.

I use it and for $10 a month I get a terabyte of storage. I can back up my life there and it incorporates neatly into Finder on my Mac. When I capture screens they go automatically to Dropbox. It provides a place to back up my photos from my phone. It’s convenient and easy and it works.

It seemed that such a tool would translate nicely to business, but Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder and principal analyst at Deep Analysis, who has been following this space for years, says Dropbox has always primarily been confined to teams on the business side. “Dropbox is primarily a consumer company with 500 million users, [with] only about 300,000 teams using their business offering,” he told TechCrunch.

That’s not to say they aren’t trying to capture more of the enterprise. In the weeks prior to the IPO, they made a pair of announcements designed to increase their enterprise credibility including one with Google to store G Suite documents natively in Dropbox and one with Salesforce to embed Dropbox folders in Salesforce Sales and Marketing clouds.

For now though, even with this business push, Pelz-Sharpe points out that most of Dropbox’s business customers are small teams of 3 or more people with a dash of larger implementations. “Nor are people building much on top of Dropbox in the way of business applications – it remains primarily a very efficient file sharing system,” he explained.

Differences with Box

This in contrast to Box, which has been working primarily with large enterprise companies for years to solve much more complex problems around content. Aaron Levie from Box said he’s absolutely rooting for Dropbox, but they have always been going after different markets, since Box decide to go enterprise about two years into its existence.

“We are fundamentally building two very different companies. Both are large markets. While there is no limit to the scale they could become, we have built a very different business around how do you serve [large companies] and deal with unstructured company data — and it’s a very different product set [from Dropbox],” Levie told TechCrunch.

Dropbox was off to a great start today with stock soaring, up nearly 40 percent in early trading, but however Dropbox ends up doing in the days and months ahead, they will do it having made their mark mostly as a consumer company — and that’s fine. If they continue to build their enterprise business over time, it will be all the better for them, but it turns out up until now, the only thing Box and Dropbox had in common was both had “box” in their names.


Have a look at Dropbox’s debut at the TechCrunch 50 (the precursor to TechCrunch Disrupt) in 2008:

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Aaron Levie

Box Graph unleashes relationships between content and users

Box has vast amounts of content in its stores, and as it begins to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to make it easier to surface, it also wants to expose each piece of content and how it relates to other content and users. To help achieve that, the company announced the Box Graph today at BoxWorks.

“The Box Graph enables customers to predictively recommend content that might be relevant to you. It would be impossible to do this without a graph,” Jeetu Patel, who holds the dual titles of Chief Product Officer and Chief Strategy Officer at Box, told TechCrunch.

The idea of a graph was first popularized by Facebook, which discussed an individual’s social graph, the connections they had between friends on the social network. In a similar fashion the Box Graph is building a network of connections, but instead of just friends, it’s between pieces of content and employees and how they relate to each other.

When the system begins to understand these connections, it can use the content in any number of interesting ways including surfacing content that might be interesting to you based on who you know and what other types of content you tend to use — or it could be used to move content through a workflow to the people that need to see it based on their jobs and what’s been happening with the piece of content before.

All of this is done within the confines of Box’s built-in permissions, security and compliance so you don’t get to see content that you’re not authorized to see, even if it the system believes you would be interested in it, based on similar content you tend to look at.

To demonstrate the power of the Graph, the company announced a new tool called “The Feed,” which Box describes as “a personalized activity feed that curates and surfaces the most relevant updates, insights and content for each Box user.” This could involve content that requires your immediate attention or content that the systems thinks is relevant to you based on previous interests. It could also share “trending” content that is popular among your peers.

The Box Graph and The Feed will be available starting early next year, according to Box.

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Aaron Levie

Box Skills applies AI and machine learning to growing multimedia content

 Box CEO Aaron Levie has always had a vision for the company that extended well beyond its earliest use case as way to transfer files between machines online. His company has continually kept looking to the future at ways the Box toolset could adapt to the changing needs of the market. More than a decade after launching the company and almost three years after going public, the company continues… Read More

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