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Dropbox and its cloud competitors have been so successful both at attracting customers and building developer ecosystems that people no longer wonder if they should use them, but why their IT organizations don't support them.
The day of reckoning is here. User communities are now pushing their CIOs to offer or allow something other than the shared drives of yesterday. It's a huge opportunity for the file sync vendors -- if their strategy is something other than "catch up with Dropbox."
Cloud-based file sync is much more convenient and mobile than yesterday's G: drive, and judging from conversations I've had with adopters, it's also more reliable. Users of the venerable "premises-only" file server shares got tired of accessing company files remotely over a VPN and slow broadband. When they started to ask their IT organizations for something similar to their consumer experience with Dropbox, the air raid sirens started to blare at IT HQ: "Here comes change!"
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Vendors, ever tuned in to career IT workers (and to their Google searches for "secure Dropbox alternatives"), tried to step in: "Let's offer secure cloud sync!" But as a point product, it's the wrong move. Here's why.
As an IT service provider, don't try to solve a stated user problem (slow, awkward and non-mobile file access) with a solution optimized for your problem (security).
And what do users want? Completely transparent file sync that works all the time, as well as simple usability. I've argued before that a robust developer ecosystem -- an area where Dropbox is the strongest among cloud file sync vendors -- is incredibly important. That's because files in themselves are useless. What people need are great apps to operate on those always-synchronized files.
That ecosystem is important on both an enterprise and personal level. A few weeks ago, my dad, an iPhone-toting octogenarian who's still in the workforce, wanted an iPhone app to share voice recordings. I set him up with one that supports Dropbox. My dad's best buddy has a daughter, Laura Yecies, who happens to be the CEO of SugarSync. "How come we can't use SugarSync?" my father asked. Well, Dad, because no apps support it for what you want.
SugarSync has done a lot better of late with app partnerships -- the biggest mobile Office players, for example, now support it -- but when developers for the next random app think "cloud file sync," they're still thinking the big D.
InformationWeek editorial director Fritz Nelson will interview SugarSync's Yecies Wednesday on InformationWeek's Valley View show, and Fritz and I chatted briefly about enterprise topics he could discuss with her. One overarching question: How can Dropbox's competitors differentiate themselves in the push toward enterprise file sync?
I told Fritz about a conversation I had with Ryan Kalember, chief product officer for WatchDox. Kalember raised an important point: if you solve the usability problem by offering enterprise-provided apps to employees, you can sidestep the ecosystem problem. WatchDox, he said, offers great replacements for Office document editing, PDF annotation, and most of the other tools that folks would actually want in order to do something with their files.
Point taken -- but if and only if WatchDox offers a great user experience and all the apps a user might want, along with a high grade of security. A tall order, for sure.
WatchDox has consolidated three product categories into one: mobile device management, file sync and mobile office apps. We've seen other point products consolidate with other products after the point product matures. We all remember when routers didn't offer access control lists -- you had to get a firewall to do that.
As enterprises consider file sync products, it will be important for their IT leaders to evaluate vendor strategy. File sync vendors can go down two main roads: they can offer additional value (WatchDox) that lets enterprise customers preserve consumer-like usability, or they can get acquired by a vendor that will offer additional value.
I've said before that enterprises should consider startups as part of doing a risk-benefit analysis. But in a crowded and newly commoditized product space, CIOs who can't or won't use the leader must have a clear, value-based reason for picking someone else.
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