Dropbox has been a pretty good success, and it is difficult to do it down when it comes to an easy way for an individual to put information in one place for their own use across multiple devices. Dropbox sparked off a raft of "me-toos" trying to do things just differently enough to create a market for themselves - companies such as SugarSync or Ubuntu's One, or bigger players trying to retain control of their customers such as Apple with iCloud and Microsoft with SkyDrive.
Consumer service are one thing, but there are problems when it comes to the business use of such services; the individual cannot be king here. To the organisation, information is the basis of its intellectual property, and if the information is spread around the cloud, this can be a major issue.
Dropbox was originally aimed purely at individuals, and as they started to use it for work-related documents, enterprises had a couple of major worries. Firstly, they had no visibility of what information was being stored in Dropbox (or any other cloud-based consumer service) and secondly, it was not being shared across a team in an effective manner.
Dropbox is addressing this through its "business" plans and Microsoft is working through its plans for SkyDrive Pro - but are they doing enough? A look at what other providers such as Box are beginning to put in place, including additional team and organisational functionality, points towards the availability of well-rounded business information sharing system.
One interesting company that is taking things to the next level is Perforce Software. Perforce is best known for its on-premise software configuration management (SCM) tools. This provides the levels of control and ownership that many organisations are looking for that cloud-based systems may be perceived to lack.
Within SCM, teams work together, creating and working on digital assets that need to be managed and controlled at a granular level with high levels of security.
Hang on - isn't this what's needed for team working on business information as well?
This is exactly what Perforce thought. However, the existing Perforce SCM system was not something that could just be re-badged and thrown over the wall in the hope that users would flock to it and change the world. Perforce is a tool aimed at technical developers and its front end would appear very complex to business users. Even so, Perforce has seen it being used by non-technical users to manage other digital assets.
Perforce could have gone for an approach of taking what they had and cutting out all the functionality that wasn't needed. This may well have worked, but would have presented them with two set of underlying code to manage, two products to support needs and so on.
What Perforce decide to do was to take the existing Perforce SCM system and keep the engine as it is, but create a new skin over the top, creating Perforce Commons. Starting from the "keep it simple, stupid" school of thought, it started with the very basics - what would users want to do? Well, dragging documents from their device into the system seemed like a good place to start. Once the documents, what next? Well, preview them would seem like a good idea. Put them in folders would keep things clean. Share them between people inside and outside the organisation. Comment on them to create a stream of activity - you get the picture. Start simply and allow the interface to make this happen in the simplest way possible.
However, Commons also allows some advanced features - for example, individuals can work on documents at the same time and three-way comparisons can be carried out to aggregate and resolve comments and changes in an easy manner through an intelligent merge. Ideal when working as a team against the same information assets - parallel work can be carried out, helping to compress timescales.
What Perforce is ending up with is the proven strengths of its SCM product, completely re-skinned so that a business person can use it in a business environment to put documents in a controlled environment so that they can access them from any device wherever they are, share them within their teams and with those outside their teams and enable social collaboration via comments and tagging. Full versioning is there too - and users can send links to people that will always link to the latest version - or to a specific version if the user wants.
This approach takes things beyond where some of the other shared file providers are looking. And for Perforce, it has the luxury of being able to rapidly introduce new capabilities through just surfacing the underlying functionality of the Perforce SCM engine.
There are problems for Perforce, though. Where it is known, it is for SCM - and trying to persuade its SCM users to allow Commons to be used across an organisation may not be easy, although Perforce itself says that its customers are quite open to the proposition. Where it is not known, it has the problem of messaging - does it want to sell SCM or Commons - or both? Each needs different messaging to different groups - but any one sale could cloud the sale of the other. Perforce also has to decide how it works with its channel - the SCM channel will not be well positioned to sell Commons.
It also has to decide what it really is - is it a Dropbox for the enterprise? Is it an evolution of where others such as Box are going? Is it an alternative to SkyDrive Pro? There will be those who want to stay with an on-premise deployment, and Perforce fits the bill well against all these cloud-based services. Indeed, it would be relatively easy for Perforce to create a cloud-based offering and take on these other vendors head-to-head.
However, to start with, it will be an on-premise only. But there are other on-premise products available - should Perforce be aiming to be SharePoint with bells on, or maybe even Documentum for the masses?
Its future is probably somewhere towards the SharePoint with bells on - and it has an interesting business model where small groups can use it indefinitely with no constraints for free: an interesting offer to the SMB market, but one which if it becomes Perforce's main market will produce little in the way of revenues but with considerable cost overheads.
Overall, Commons looks promising. Quocirca expects Perforce to struggle to start with, but it has the capabilities to react to users' wishes and wants rapidly and as long as it sorts out the channel and creates a sustainable business model, Commons could well be a success.