Box Announces Notes – Moves Into the Content Creation Business

I’ve been covering Box for many years now but one thing I’ve always wondered about is their focus on being a content storage and collaboration vendor without enabling the creation of that content. Today we start to see a change in that direction with the announcement of a limited private release of Box Notes, a new service from the company that is essentially an online replacement for group white boarding and note taking.

Notes is a very lightweight editing interface that borrows heavily from a number of consumer and business services – in particular Facebook chat, Google Docs and the new startup from ex-Facebook CTO Bret Taylor, Quip. The idea of notes isn’t so much to create long form documents, rather it is an environment where multiple individuals can co-create, in real-time and with visibility over all contributors inputs.

I spent an extended period of time last night talking about the news with Box’s head of platform, Chris Yeh and getting some of the thinking behind the release. Yeh sees content creation on a continuum from full word processing through to lightweight communications. Notes is strongly positioned towards the lighter end of that spectrum and is very svelte in appearance. It is reminiscent in some ways to the very earliest versions of Google Docs. This is not surprising given that Sam Schillace, the creator of the origin product for Google Docs, Writely, is now a Box staffer. This lightness indicates the intended end-use of the product – it’s not so much a tool to create client-facing documents on, rather it’s a way to quickly get ideas down on paper.

Notes’ user interface is undeniably cutting edge (see below) – little icons show up to indicate who is typing and these move around as people type in different areas. The user interface takes many design cues from Facebook Chat (in particular the chat heads that show up on the Facebook mobile app). In fact it’s fair to say that the interface is what Google Docs would look like if it was being built from scratch today.

note heads at work

That said I have some questions about where on the functionality continuum the real need for a native content-creation tool within Box lies. It seems to me that most business users have a need for slightly more functional creation tools – the ability to perform at least some of the more advance word-processing functions would be useful. Unless of course the ongoing vision of this product is for primarily brainstorming sessions, in which case there is a fairly glaring problem with the product. Most people who brain storm do so face to face. in the absence of this in-person way of working, people tend to use audio and video tools with the content creation application as the tool to capture that information – Notes without a native audio and/or video tool feels a little orphaned. Of course this is something that Box’s extensive network of platform partners could build – but personally I’d prefer to see it within the product itself.

The other deficiency (and Yeh admitted this himself) is that notes is not yet available for mobile devices. He told me that the mobile team is soon to begin work on this functionality and a general release of both web and mobile versions of the product should occur in 2014. I’d also like to see the ability to edit Notes within word – this would help bridge the gap between rough-and-ready notes and word-processing and fill more of the workflow that enterprises need to cover. At the moment, the functionality that Notes includes is as follows:

  • Real-Time Concurrent Editing: Collaborate in real-time on a Box Note with your network of collaborators
  • Collaborator Presence/Note Heads: See who’s collaborating on a Box Note in real-time with a user profile picture that follows your cursor in the left hand side of the screen, letting your colleagues easily see where you’re working in the Box Note
  • In-Line Toolbar and Annotations: Select text to leave edits or hyperlink to other content on Box
  • Comments: Leave feedback within a note
  • Share a Box Note: Easily generate a link to your Box Note for sharing with other collaborators

Mobile versions, rich media embeds, version control and offline editing are all “coming soon”. An interesting aspect of this announcement that Yeh told me about was the demand from their larger enterprise customers. According to Yeh Eli Lilly is one example of an organization that was using a similar tool from a small startup (in their case Notability) but had real concerns over both the security of the application and the stability of the business itself. Getting a functionally similar tool from a vendor who is larger, ticked some boxes for them. I absolutely think there is a pressing need for a native content creation tool within Box, and Notes is an interesting start. I predict that notes will get more functionality as it is tested within enterprise beta customers over the next few months.