Box Is Testing Out New Apps That Could See It Go Head To Head With Google Docs

It was less than two years ago that cloud storage startup Box announced a major integration with Google Docs, to let people use the online service from within Box itself. But now that the startup, backed by $284 million in venture funding, is ramping up plans for more services that take it beyond storage, CEO Aaron Levie says that his company is testing out new enterprise applications of its own that will put it into much closer competition with Google Docs, Microsoft’s Office 365 and more.

“Hundreds of apps have been created to take advantage of the cloud environment. But internally we are also exploring these ideas,” Levie said in an interview with TechCrunch yesterday. This includes testing out “some of our own applications.”

Levie would not say what exactly what form Box’s Google Docs killer would take, but he was careful to note that these apps would not be copycats of the search giant’s existing products, that they would fundamentally be mobile, and more fundamentally social.

“I’m not talking about this as a Google Docs competitor or an Office competitor. We are talking about changing the way that people work and collaborate around content. The question we are asking is, what does real time collaboration look like in the mobile era? Our role as a platform to manage content is to do it in whatever way we can in the future.”

It looks like this could be a development of the new-look Box that made its debut in September 2012. New features announced at that time included search capabilities, the ability to edit documents in Box itself, the ability to “like” documents and monitor notifications in real-time. My colleague Alex called it a hybrid of Google Docs and Facebook, a description which might turn out to be very prescient.

Beyond Levie’s teasers, Box has a capable person on board who will be able to help match, or maybe surpass, Google’s offering: Sam Schillace, Box’s VP of engineering, joined last year from none other than Google. Most recently, he had been Google’s entrepreneur-in-residence and a principal at Google Ventures, but he had also been one of the founders of Google Docs — which was created after Google acquired his cloud-based document creation/editing startup Writely.

“He’s spent more time on the future of collaboration and the future of documents than just about anyone,” said Levie. “His expertise in this space is unparalleled.”

Box — or at least Levie — definitely seems ripe for some Google sparring. Before his TC interview, and in an a slightly larger circle of journalists and a few Box customers, Levie was pretty vocal in his opinion of the search giant’s shortcomings when it comes to business users.

“Google has too many other things to think about,” he said, referring to their mainstay advertising business, mobile and other services. “They aren’t world class in customer service, and they treat enterprise as a side business. It’s a fraction of a fraction of their revenue stream. You don’t get the Zappos-like experience and they are not innovating on the side of customer support.”

Levie’s comments on customer service are particularly interesting in light of the fact that Google is reportedly working on Amazon Prime-busting home delivery product — which not only straddles the search giant’s ambitions in extending its consumer products, but also its e-commerce and logistics relationships with merchants and other businesses.

Whether or not Box’s offerings win the day, the market is ripe for more companies to offer cloud-based software — or, depending on how you look at it, cloud-based software is still a massively fragmented space. Levie pointed out that today, the percentage of data that gets created in Google Docs is actually less than 1% — meaning many people are still working on their desktops, and often using Microsoft products, or using something else entirely.

Looking at Box’s wider business, it is also working on expanding its services in other ways — again to build out the concept of being a central platform and hub for enterprise cloud services.

Among them, Levie noted that it is looking at ways of introducing monetization into its enterprise apps business specifically by offering enterprises a way of accessing and buying from a director of apps hosted by Box itself. Enterprise apps are already being hosted on Box’s platform — there are some 400 Box OneCloud applications live across iOS and Android platforms. (Note: this is a new number that Levie let slip out yesterday; the company is still officially reporting only 300.)

This sounds like a development on what Box described to Leena back in December.

“It won’t be one-click buying from day one,” Levie said yesterday, “but it will take advantage of the customer scale that we have to monetize those apps.” As for what kind of scale is at play here, Box says it has served some 10 million users. Among Box’s partners are Zuora, an online payments specialist, so I wonder if they will also be involved with this.

Box is also evolving in terms of its infrastructure. It opened a “data accelerator” this week in Dublin that speeds up uploading times for people in the European region. There will be more evolution of that as Levie says that in the next 18-24 months Box is looking at more ways of “sharing data locally,” which will emphasize improving downloading speeds as well.