RealTime IT News

Box.Net Unwraps Social Network Features

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It's tempting to say Box.net is thinking outside the box with its latest release, but that turn of a phrase isn't quite accurate. The company says its move to add more social network features is more a natural evolution of its business.

Box.net continues to offer its namesake free online storage service that lets up to five people store and share files. Now it's following the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model popularized by Salesforce.com by offering more features and administration for $15 per user per month.

"Our roots have been in how to make it easy to share things. We're incredibly focused on the end user," Aaron Levie, CEO and co-founder of Box.net, told InternetNews.com during a demo of the new service at company headquarters. "We have hundreds of thousands of people we don’t have a business relationship with that use the service for free."

But that could change with the added features in the business upgrade that went live Thursday. The service offers Facebook-like profile pages for every employee that includes information about their role and current projects as well as contact information (e-mail, phone number, and a picture). The profile also shows the employee's latest activity, including what content they've most recently edited, commented on or discussed.

Box.net joins a chorus of companies looking to address the needs of businesses that wish to add collaboration and social network features to their internal systems. Businesses are generally wary of simply leveraging a consumer service like Facebook because of security concerns and the mixing of personal and professional information, which could be a huge distraction in the workplace.

"Open social networks are scary to most businesses," said Box.net's vice president of marketing Jen Grant. "We have granular permissions on every folder and we've integrated the things that make a social network effective."

For example, "Updates" in Box.net are essentially news feeds that show what a person is working on – not where they're going to dinner, or how sick their cat is. Grant said this kind of focused content is to Box.net what a resume is to LinkedIn or music to a MySpace user.

"With Box, if someone in California is putting together a campaign that's useful for someone in Florida, it's easy for them to connect and share materials," said Box.net user Patti Langdale of Meritage Homes, the 12th largest homebuilder in the U.S. "The new changes continue to build upon what we like so much about Box – it's easy for our marketing managers to share ideas, connect and re-use successful materials," she said in a statement.

A billion dollar market

The opportunity to get grab a piece of the social network pie in the enterprise space is huge. Research firm Gartner estimates content, communications and collaboration products constitute the biggest share of the SaaS market, with more than $2.1 billion in sales in 2008 and a projected $4.7 billion by 2012.

Traditional enterprise vendors like SAP have added Web 2.0 features to enhance the collaborative elements of its software, while Socialtext and other "pure-play" social network companies have tailored offerings designed for business.

Still, much of big business remains skeptical. Intel CEO Paul Otellini, for example, said in a speech last November that the social network offerings he'd seen aren't ready for prime time business use.

"IT managers need security and manageability," Otellini said. "I see it as a big opportunity I don't see any companies addressing.

But he also demo'ed a mock-up of the features he'd like to see and said there is "a lot of work to do getting Web 2.0 behind the firewall. These are huge opportunities. I'm very optimistic."