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IBM and Box – More than meets the eye

Two days ago, IBM and Box announced their new partnership. It’s big news in the ECM and EFSS space, but not earth-shattering in the grand scheme of things. However, looking at the twittersphere and blogs, it seems to have created more buzz than other similar partnerships in this space. There are good reasons why: The partnership seems to bleed into other technology spaces – Collaboration and Analytics being the most obvious ones – and everyone is trying to read between the lines of the announcement, to understand the motivations, benefits, impacts and strategies underlying the move.

Market reaction

The announcement was not altogether a surprise. Maybe the specific tying of IBM to Box was unexpected, but a major move of this type in the EFSS market was very much predicted by pundits, including Chris Walker, Apoorv Durga and by yours truly. Following the original partnership announcement however, and Box’s own blog, I have read many comments on the impact of the announcement including Cheryl McKinnon, Jake O’Donnell, Alan Lepofsky, Michal Lev-Ram, Steve Lohr etc. Many others will surely follow in the next few days.

I want to share some additional thoughts on what this announcement means and its potential impact.

Not an acquisition – yet

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Three years ago, this announcement would have read very different. IBM’s acquisition spree was in full swing, and acquiring someone like Box would have been an obvious and easy target. IBM’s cash wallet however has since zipped up and, with few exceptions, partnerships are the flavour of the day. I can’t help thinking however that, unlike the Apple and Facebook partnerships announced previously, this is more of a “try before you buy” type of partnership. Also, Box’s market penetration and revenue is very much dependent on their other partnerships, competitive to IBM, so an out and out acquisition would have crippled that revenue. This is a very modern, poly-amorous affair…

Impact on Enterprise Content Management

The announcement focuses on three distinct IBM software areas: Content Management (IBM ECM,) Analytics (IBM Watson) and Collaboration (IBM Connections). I don’t have insight as to which of the three groups led the discussions, but I can certainly see the most direct impact being in the ECM portfolio, so I suspect it started there.

IBM’s Content Navigator on Cloud, which includes IBM ECM’s existing EFSS functionality, was developed directly on SoftLayer. Its market share however, compared to the on-premise version, has been minimal. Rather than trying to compete with Box, this partnership brings a dominant cloud market footprint, which gives IBM a shortcut into extending the rest of its ECM portfolio to a cloud audience.

The jewel in that portfolio’s crown would be IBM Case Management, allowing Box customers to easily layer line-of-business functionality on top of their existing content footprint. IBM recently announced availability of IBM Case Management on their development cloud and, presumably, that will soon be followed by a true instance of cloud-based Case Management. Bringing Box, and their market footprint, to the same infrastructure platform provides an excellent jumpstart for true SaaS process management for IBM.

Capture and Imaging are an obvious feed mechanism for ingesting Box content, but I don’t see that being a dominant business driver here.

Information Governance on the other hand, in the form of StoredIQ, creates a much more exciting proposition: Just like SharePoint in the past, Box “estates” have had little or no visibility of what corporate content is actually being stored in the cloud, what risks it exposes, what disposition schedules it is supposed to follow, who it is being shared with, or how it is preserved. StoredIQ can help address all of these issues for existing Box users by analysing and cataloguing existing content (using both metadata and Content Analytics) and then forcing governance actions to regain control over that content. Huge opportunity for IBM sales, and a great boost in Box’s credibility in the Enterprise world. It would be very interesting to follow how the messaging develops alongside Box’s own Governance announcement just a day before the partnership, especially as it overlaps with IBM’s own Records Management and eDiscovery functionality.

Impact on Collaboration, Analytics and Enterprise cloud

Alan Lepofsky has already covered the Collaboration angle in detail. The key here is to notice that Box may be directly clashing with the IBM Connection Files EFSS offering, but less so on the true collaboration functionality of the IBM Connections platform and its Social Business messaging. To all intents and purposes, it’s another content repository to store content in and, just like for ECM, provides a good footprint for IBM in the cloud market space to use as an upsale opportunity.

IBM Content Analytics (previously part of the ECM portfolio, now part of Watson) offers an interesting twist: Frank Gens (IDC) said that “This deal is largely about using IBM’s artificial intelligence on the corporate content in the Box service […]”. I am not sure it’s largely about that, but it certainly has a role to play: I have no doubt that Box sees this as a huge marketing attraction in its efforts to woo Corporate markets, but I don’t see as much of a benefit for IBM. It’s another content repository to farm, and a very messy one at that. The value of this exercise is predicated on governance being applied to the content first to minimise ROT, and on finding real life use-cases where this “artificial intelligence” (or, more accurately, natural language processing analytics) will provide true insight. It remains to be seen if the huge volumes of content currently held in the Box cloud, have much more insight to offer than just duplication of content that is available on file systems and other on-premise repositories.

The final little gem in the announcement is “Enterprise Cloud”. This has potentially huge implications for both parties: By moving their content to IBM’s SoftLayer Cloud infrastructure, Box are gaining a great, geographically distributed, cloud footprint that is underwritten by one of the biggest names in the industry. Not only it offers a great credibility boost for the Enterprise market, but it also allows Box to concentrate on the product functionality leaving IBM to manage the back-end infrastructure. IBM on the other hand, gets a sudden and immense content load transferred to its Cloud platform, significantly increasing its market share (in both volume and users) over its cloud platform competitors. Win-Win for both!

Hidden opportunities

It will be very interesting to see how much the Box partnership penetrates the rest of IBM’s software group. Besides ECM, Connections and Watson, there are several other parts of IBM’s software portfolio that could potentially take advantage of this deal. IBM Process Management is currently integrating to content repositories mainly through CMIS. Will they target the Box user base for line-of-business solutions? Asset Management, Risk Management, Digital Marketing, Customer Experience, eCommerce, all have a need to store and share content, and it’s almost guaranteed that a lot of that content currently sits in Box. Will they also try to connect?

Speculating, just two days after an announcement, is a dangerous thing. We will know in the next six months how realistic any of these ideas will be. But I can see why this partnership made sense, on paper at least, for both parties and for our market.

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