First it was the desktop, then office productivity software, then finally the Internet. Each in turn characterized a technology platform that defined a computing era. 

Microsoft won each of these rounds, with Windows, Office and Internet Explorer respectively. But then came a new game in town — the cloud — and this one is still up for grabs. The stakes are high because whoever owns the cloud, will own the customer. In a sense, the cloud is the new computing "operating system."

Win the Consumer, Win the Cloud

However, unlike previous rounds, today’s battle for the cloud is not around a single product, but rather a suite of converging services: email, file storage, synchronization and sharing (FSS) software, office productivity software, mobile and anytime/anywhere access, and collaboration capabilities — and they all have to be secure.

Many vendors already provide individual services for email and FSS. These services have largely become commoditized. Case in point, Gartner estimates that there are over 100 vendors offering FSS services just for the enterprise. As such, contenders are extending their offerings to encompass a complete set of essential, core cloud services for the consumer. Because once hooked, consumers will want to "standardize" their online presence with one set of integrated, coherent tools from a single vendor. 

More importantly, consumers will want to bring their cloud with them to work, because after all, why use one set of cloud services for play and another set for work? So the goals of capturing the consumer and business cloud are intertwined.

To fully capture the consumer, a cloud vendor must provide these essential services:

  • Email that includes advanced features for reducing SPAM and information overload
  • File storage, synchronization and sharing capabilities 
  • Anytime, anywhere access to files and emails from any endpoint — desktop, mobile or the web.
  • Security for information (at rest) in the cloud
  • Collaboration features. Initially this will be informal, ad-hoc collaboration defined by small or temporary projects, but once consumers bring their cloud to work, the provider must enable large-scaled, structured collaboration that is the cornerstone of business initiatives for managing projects, clients, cases or products.  
  • Co-authoring, version control and document editing capabilities so workers can work on documents, spreadsheets and presentations when and where they need

3 Companies, 3 Approaches

Three companies making a serious play to win the cloud platform stakes are Dropbox, Google and Microsoft. Each of the three is trying to conquer the cloud from a different direction, each by leveraging their strengths relative to their competitors. 

Dropbox is leveraging its over 400 million consumer users who have already introduced Dropbox for Enterprise into 8 million businesses. However, Dropbox’s advantage in number of users is offset by its current lack of collaboration and file editing capabilities. For now, Dropbox seems content to partner with Microsoft to allow its users to edit files stored in the Dropbox cloud. But its recent beta release of Paper and its acquisition of office productivity software company CloudOn back in January, signal it is serious about adding key missing components to compete on the cloud platform stage.

Google is relying on its popular consumer Google App suite to drive consumers to bring Google into the workplace with its enterprise version, Google for Work. Google for Work is an amalgam of services that includes Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs and Hangouts. According to Google, “over 5 million business have [already] gone Google.” With a complete set of email, FSS, office productivity software that includes co-authoring, and collaboration capabilities, Google is well-positioned to own the consumer and business cloud platform. 

Google's Achilles’ heel is the fact that many consumers prefer Microsoft Office over Google Apps as their productivity software of choice. Trying to wean customers off of Office is proving harder than expected. Case in point, Google recently struck a deal with SoftWatch, an office suite analytics company, through which Google proponents can use SoftWatch to prove how much their colleagues are actually [not] using Microsoft Office.  

Microsoft approaches the market from the opposite direction — its dominance in the enterprise space. Microsoft is a late comer to the consumer party with only 18.2M consumer users, and is banking on the popularity of its Office productivity apps like Exchange, Word, PowerPoint and Excel to woo consumers back to the fold. Without the consumers, there can be no cloud dominance. To bolster its position, Microsoft’s recently released Office 2016, which focuses squarely on competing with Google and Dropbox, by offering new consumer-like email and collaboration features in Exchange and OneDrive. With Office 2016, Microsoft now has a complete cloud offering, but it still has a long way to go to catch up on the consumer side.

How this will play out is anyone’s guess, but considering the size of the stakes, you can be sure all of the players are going to go all out to ensure they are the last one standing when the cloud platform dust settles.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Tyler J. Bolken