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.