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Whiteboarding has become core to productivity, and Box wants in

The “content cloud” company is the latest to help workers present and brainstorm ideas with tools akin to those of a real-world whiteboard—and beyond.

Whiteboarding has become core to productivity, and Box wants in
[Image: courtesy of Box]

Whiteboarding apps such as Miro and Microsoft Whiteboard have been around for years. But the category really came into its own two years ago, when the pandemic abruptly put physical whiteboards in meeting spaces out of commission. All of a sudden, many organizations had an urgent need for an equivalent that was digital in nature and designed for a world of remote work. And many software companies, from Figma to Monday.com, have responded by rolling out their own whiteboard apps.

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Now “content cloud” company Box is joining the trend. It’s announcing a new tool called Box Canvas, which it describes as a “virtual whiteboarding and visual collaboration experience.” But CEO Aaron Levie is quick to underline that it’s about a lot more than replicating the scrawling and sketching you might otherwise be doing with a dry-erase marker in some conference room.

“Our mission is, is we want to power how the world works together,” he says, “And if you think about how much work is happening around content, every meeting you’re in, there’s some kind of notes being taken, maybe there’s a brainstorm happening. Every project that happens, there’s lots of files related to it. There’s contracts for partners, there’s images and media assets that go into whatever you’re producing.”

Giving people a way to collaborate on that content in real time felt core to Box’s goals, Levie explains. Canvas has been in the works for just under a year; the company isn’t planning to roll it out until this fall. But when Canvas does debut, it will offer unlimited access in all Box plans, including free accounts.

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Tools of the trade

Canvas will launch with a collection of features typical to other digital whiteboarding and collaboration tools. There will be templates and features for free-form text and drawing as well as more structured diagrams and graphics. People in a session will be able to chime in via sticky notes, polls, and—of course—emoji. Users will also be able to bring in content an organization has stored using Box—including Box Notes—and everything will be safeguarded with the same level of security as the rest of the service.

Unlike whiteboarding rivals such as Figma’s FigJam, Canvas won’t have widgets, integrations, or other mechanisms for interfacing with services outside Box itself. At least not at first: Levie says it will eventually gain features that make it look more like a platform. “It will have its own kind of ecosystem that eventually emerges, for sure,” he told me.

I think this is a sort of Renaissance in how we’re going to be working with our data.”

Box CEO Aaron Levie
Though whiteboarding certainly feels like a logical extension of the content-wrangling that’s Box’s mainstay, that’s not a unique symbiosis. It’s also closely related to design, project management, and other aspects of work, which explains why so many players in productivity software are rolling out whiteboarding offerings. That brings up a question: If an organization uses Box, Figma, and Monday.com—an entirely plausible scenario—will it settle on one of their whiteboards? Might a company opt for something more fully-evolved such as Miro? Or could it use more than one product depending on the context?

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Levie says that he doesn’t expect organizations to obsessively zero in on a single whiteboard to the exclusion of others. “I don’t think this is a space where there’ll be one solution that rules them all,” he argues. After all, he notes, that there’s nothing unusual about a company using Google Docs and Word in different situations, or Excel and Airtable.

Even if Box chooses to concentrate on the aspects of the whiteboarding and visual collaboration challenge most closely related to its content-centric expertise, it can do plenty to extend and differentiate Canvas. In the past, Levie says, technologists were quick to write the obituary of the file as a fundamental building block of how works get done—yet today, we find ourselves juggling more kinds of content than ever.

“I think this is a sort of Renaissance in how we’re going to be working with our data,” he says. “It’s no longer just the ’90s [era] of, ‘Okay, there’s four file types that you work on.’ It’s truly going to be a much more dynamic and diverse set of content that customers work with.”

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the global technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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