With the general release of Office 365 expected less than a week away, cloud-based enterprise collaboration is about to go mainstream. While there has been a good deal of talk about Office 365 -- probably because everyone likes to talk about Microsoft -- others have been developing their collaboration abilities too, and with the announcement that Box (news, site ) and Google Docs are providing deep integration, another major challenge to Office 365 is now available.

Box vs. Office 365

We say this not because we can identify any particular flaws within Office 365 itself, but because Box has addressed what is widely seen as Office 365’s one big problem: It doesn’t allow for third-party integrations.

And Box does. While the announcement that it is integrating Google Docs could really shake up the office productivity suite market, the Box Apps Marketplace includes integrations for other cloud platforms such as Salesforce, NetSuite and Yammer, giving them access to content stored in Box, and making Box a flexible cloud content management system.

While Microsoft has, over the months since Office 365 went into beta, insisted that it is nowhere near finished building Office 365 and that the soon-to-be released version is only the cornerstone of something much bigger, Microsoft does not have a history of allowing for third-party integrations, and given the capabilities of Office 365, it’s a good bet that the thinking in Redmond is that there is no reason why they should --  a “build it and they will come” attitude..

Using Google Docs in Box
Using Google Docs in Box

Box, Google Docs

However, there is a flaw in this thinking. That flaw is to envisage a future in the cloud where companies will look to one vendor for all their needs, a future that at this point looks unrealistic in that companies will be looking for the best products at the most competitive prices. This paints a picture of enterprises using several cloud vendors for several products, with integration between products a key selling point

This is what Box has done, and by integrating with Google Docs, it means that anyone working on Box will be able to use Google Docs for all their office productivity needs.

What this means in practice is that the 6 million users who are currently using Box  -- Box’s figures --will be able to apply Google’s real-time, concurrent editing to the more than 50 million Word and Excel files already stored on Box.

Using Google Docs in Box: Step 2
Using Google Docs in Box: Step 2

They will also be able to create Google Docs and Spreadsheets within Box folders, as well as use the simultaneous editing capabilities of Docs. This means that, working in the Box interface, users will be able to build documents, share those file with Box collaborators, view the documents in Box’s real-time feed and use other Box collaboration tools with them

We’re moving towards a future where cloud documents eclipse those tethered to desktop applications, and at Box, we’re accelerating this shift for our entire user base by bringing Google’s collaborative documents to Box’s content management,” said Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box.

Dumping the Desktop?

The goal, Levie says, is to enable people to untether themselves from their desktops. The cloud, he says, is not just about extending content to different devices, but also extending it to collaborators and to other applications.

What if the entire process -- from content creation and editing to sharing and collaboration -- took place online, without ever involving your desktop? The answer, or the means to do that, lies in integrations like the one it has just announced with Google Docs. This, he argues, is the future of the cloud -- a future unlike the one offered by monoliths like Office 365.

It's early days yet, and there are advantages in the two different approaches, and it seems likely at the moment that the Box and Office 365 will develop parallel but separate cloud strategies. However, accessibility is key and in this respect Box wins hands down. How Microsoft responds to the third-party accessibility challenge has yet to be seen.

Levie also says that Box is far from finished in this respect, and that it will be using the US$48 million fund they secured in February “to aggressively invest in expanding and deepening its partnership." More on this as it happens.