​Keeping abreast of all the latest technology changes can be a full time occupation. Fortunately, here at New Signature we have a deep bench of experts who are regularly testing early release software from Microsoft and other software vendors. In today’s edition of the Technology Shootout, we’ll be focusing on two hosted business workflow suites: SharePoint Online and Box.

Both of these hosted applications are positioned as “platforms”, meaning that developers have the ability to layer on additional services from the start. Yet the two originated from very different ideas: SharePoint from two disparate projects at Microsoft hooking together web-based dashboards and search functionality with bottom up site design and file collaboration; Box from a simple “hosted file service”. As the two packages have matured, both have gained a litany of new features, with SharePoint focusing on automation and collaboration, and Box focusing on adding platform services to become much more than a simple file-sharing site.

Because SharePoint began as on-premise server, specifically designed to supplement file shares already in use, it has always been strongest from an automation perspective. In the latest version, SharePoint 2010, staff are able to edit office documents simultaneously, whether in Word, Excel or PowerPoint. In addition, the inclusion of the Office Web Apps allows staff who are not in front of a machine with a full copy of Office to be able to edit and design from the road, as long as they have a connection to the internet. With SharePoint Online, Microsoft has evolved the product to provide anywhere access and a clear roadmap for future features, hooked into a 99.9% up-time SLA for mission critical enterprises. Microsoft has also worked to position the Skydrive product (which offers simple file storage, hooked into a SharePoint Online back-end, for free) as a way for consumers to gain access to SharePoint technologies without any financial commitment.

Box began as a online replacement for file services, and has rapidly moved to add additional features including online previewing of documents and the ability to embed box documents on other websites (using the backend Box storage). Buoyed by strong investments from SAP and Salesforce, Box has tried to integrate with other Microsoft competitors such as Google, while retaining cross-platform goals such as continuing to support SharePoint. Much like Skydrive, Box offers a “freemium” model in which consumers can utilize services for little or no money, and enterprises have to pay to get additional components such as added security and access controls.

Security is a great place to begin our comparison. Currently, SharePoint Online offers very granular access for individuals within an organization, and requires individuals who are outside an organization to be able to access documents only through signing up for a Microsoft account (nee LiveID). Box, by comparison, offers full controls for individuals who sign up for Box (and are thus registered in the system) and for those outside the system, two low-level “read-only” and “download only” options. The ability to send a link to a document to someone who is effectively outside the system is both a powerful feature as well as a significant security risk. Those links can be limited in terms of access time, but even so, when a document is downloaded or previewed, the default setting in Box is to email the person who owns the document and to record the IP address of the individual who downloaded the information. This obviously scales poorly, as document owners may not wish to be inundated with emails announcing access, but is necessary to maintain control over these anonymous links. SharePoint Online, by contrast, can take advantage of some of the incredibly granular powers of Microsoft Rights Management Services, but setting this up is limited to an on-premise SharePoint 2010 environment. Advantage: neutral.

Once a document is shared out, on both SharePoint Online and Box, the next issue is one of collaboration. Box has invested a great deal of time and energy in preview plug-ins to display the content of documents shared online. When this works (assuming the plugin is loaded) the result is that one can click on a Word document and “see” the actual document. To edit it, of course, one must download the document and open up Word. SharePoint Online, by comparison, will bring up the Word document *within* Microsoft Word Web App, for both viewing and editing. For documents that there aren’t web apps for, you’ll be reduced to viewing/downloading them, depending upon your plug-ins. For shops with a large percentage of Microsoft office applications, SharePoint Online is a superior choice here. If there are large number of non-Microsoft documents, Box has an edge. Given the makeup of most offices these days, the advantage goes to SharePoint Online.

Let’s next examine basic functionality. Box has long prided itself on being an easy to use file-server replacement, and the existing drag-and-drop functionality brings that home. Staff can easily begin using the services as a replacement for a file share quite easily. SharePoint online offers “explorer mode” as a way to similarly provide drag-and-drop functionality, but it’s hidden and not easy to access. The free Skydrive application does offer drag-and-drop functionality, but one still has to click a button marked “upload” to get to that particular page. Advantage: Box.

Finally, let’s look at the road-map for both applications. Box has clearly leveraged the additional backing from Microsoft competitors to try to bridge into an “all-things-to-all-people” mentality. Out of the box there’s integration with many other providers, so the biggest gap currently involves building workflows, as well as identity management. Box has worked hard to ensure that whenever a new feature is added, the requirement for full functionality becomes a requirement for utilizing Box’s identity model, which currently is simply a list of accounts on Box. It is unclear if this will change in the future. SharePoint Online has already released the preview versions (which were finalized last week) and many of the features areas Box has excelled at are met or eclipsed in the next version. It is obvious that having a lengthy development cycle has helped SharePoint on-premise versions, but has hindered the online versions, because of the ability for competitors to introduce new features in a more agile manner. Now that SharePoint has committed to developing in shorter (months as opposed to years) bursts, we no longer see any limitation with the online version. Some of the features that work today, out of the “box” in SharePoint 2013 include drag-and-drop file functionality, the ability to use guest links to provide anonymous access, as well as an incredibly granular rights management service baked in, for free, to restrict the rights of recipients to email, view and even print particular documents. These latter two points easily best Box’s current security model, and the former equals the simplicity of starting with Box. Advantage: SharePoint Online.

In conclusion, both of these products have a rich group of partners, are industry funded and fairly mature from a development cycle. Therefore we don’t anticipate differences in consumer-focused feature parity lasting for more than 3-6 months whenever a new item is added to a competitor’s product. Both products offer a “free” version (whether Skydrive or the lowest level of Box) to get consumers involved, and both segment to ensure profitability across their customers.

If we can’t discuss consumer focused features or pricing, then how can we declare a winner? One obvious comparison point is that Microsoft has worked hard to target large customers with enterprise features and work those down to smaller customers, while Box has worked hard to target consumers and work up towards the enterprise space. Another key difference: customers who are using Microsoft Office are best served by SharePoint Online. Customers who are not currently using office documents, whether Word, Excel or PowerPoint, may find Box a compelling product, primarily because they also lack the features enterprises require such as identity management, rights management and complex work-flows. In many ways, this mirrors the distinction between SharePoint Online and other competitors such as Google: SPO tends to have a greater breadth of enterprise features and works best in organizations utilizing Microsoft Office. In this shootout, then, SharePoint Online comes out on top. If you’re interested in discussing how SharePoint Online can assist your business, reach out to us at New Signature today!