Dropbox for Business becomes a platform with new API

Dropbox, the sync-and-share startup so popular it essentially created a market category, is finally, finally opening up to become an enterprise platform with the launch of a new Dropbox for Business API that enables team-level app management and integration with third-party services. 

(The official announcement comes Wednesday at 9 a.m. ET, though word leaked out earlier this week via TechCrunch. More information will be available here at that time.)

The short version: Where Dropbox's competitors, notably Box, work to deepen their own platforms with support for the security, workflow, accountability and all the other  features enterprises demand, Dropbox is leaving that stuff to its developer partners -- 20 of which, including power players like Microsoft, IBM, Dell, and startups like Okta and Skyhigh Networks, are already signed on to the new platform.

"This indicates that Dropbox for Business is a major and attractive development platform," says George O'Brien, product manager at Dropbox for Business.

There are 100,000 businesses on Dropbox for Business, the company said. And there are already 300,000 apps that take advantage of the core, vanilla-variety Dropbox API. That's a heck of a lot of data, enterprise and otherwise, already on the platform. 

The thing is, though, there's a lot of data, applications and processes that isn't in or around Dropbox. In other words, a Dropbox customer could be using Microsoft Azure Active Directory for identity, Dell Data Protection for digital rights management and IBM WebSphere for workflows between other enterprise systems.

The API takes the existing Dropbox functionality, which only allows access to individual accounts, and gives it access to the team level. There are six areas in particular where Dropbox sees opportunity for developers to add to the platform: eDiscovery and legal hold; data loss prevention (DLP); security information and event management analytics (with a notable integration with Splunk); identity and single sign-on; data migration and on-premise backup; and custom workflows. 

Where the competition tries to work all of that kind of functionality into their core platform, Dropbox thinks that's a dead end: It's hard to be as good at that stuff as the vendors that specialize in it, and it's just another form of lock-in if you're required to use only what your storage and collaboration vendor wants you to use. If you're using one eDiscovery solution with one app and another with another, administration becomes a pain. 

In contrast, Dropbox lets you run whatever you'd like to run. In turn, it sees its focus on customer choice as a major incentive, both for using products on the Dropbox for Business platform and developing on top of it. 

"Your stuff in Dropbox is more valuable when it integrates with other software," said Ilya Fushman, head of product for Dropbox for Business. 

This moves Dropbox even more closely into competition with Box, which has long trumpeted its enterprise competence. Normally, Microsoft would also be on the rivals' list, but a recent Microsoft Office 365/Dropbox integration deal indicates they're all buddy-buddy now. So many users, consumer and enterprise alike, rely on Dropbox to store their Office data that it would really only hurt the customer not to go that route. 

Several months ago, I wrote about how Box's expansive platform strategy made more sense than Dropbox's seeming insistence on closing the walls and building everything itself. Now, it seems like the shoe's on the other foot: Box recently launched an initiative to go after specific verticals like media and oil & gas with customized solutions, while Dropbox is trying to fit in where customers need it most. 

It is, of course, still a light-touch approach to ecosystem on Dropbox's part: Letting partners handle the heavy lifting means its core API remains largely unchanged beyond the new extensibility and management.

But Dropbox's Fushman sees that as a good thing, because it means that existing Dropbox-powered apps, many of which are already put to work in the enterprise anyway, need "just a few tweaks" on the backend to be up and running. In the meantime, Fushman said the Dropbox for Business API will be getting first-party investment in the form of further developing those features. 

There are always hazards when it comes to picking a platform, both as developer and user. Look at the contemporary example of music service Spotify, which is completely destroying its own ecosystem by shutting down its apps platform, leaving developers high and dry and ultimately hurting users. But Dropbox has been at this a while, and it really doesn't seem to be going anywhere. It's just picking up its platform game -- or at least, making it clear that it sees itself as a platform in the first place.

The real question is whether customer choice, a la Dropbox, will trump prescribed, pre-packaged solutions, a la Box. With a valuation of more than $10 billion at last count, the stakes for Dropbox are higher than ever. 


Matt Weinberger

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