Dropbox's next play is yet another collaborative writing tool

Can the company differentiate itself in one more crowded market?

If there's one space in the software world that's crowded, it's the document collaboration market. Google, Microsoft, Evernote, Box, Quip and a whole host of other companies all want to get a piece of the pie.

Dropbox just threw its hat in that ring Thursday with the public beta release of Paper, the simple, collaborative and cloud-based text editor that it previewed in Engadget and Wired. A document in Paper starts simple: Users only see a title field and a body field when they open a new file. But those Paper documents can hold a great deal, like previews of files stored in Dropbox and Google Drive. People can also use paper to create to-do lists that they share with collaborators, and they can assign tasks on those lists using an @ symbol. Coders can even get something out of it, because Paper automatically formats code that gets typed into one of its documents.

Not surprisingly, users can add collaborators to the document who can all work together simultaneously. Live contributions are marked with a color-coded cursor, and users' names will also show up in the margins where they've contributed to a document.

From the limited previews that are out there, the service seems a lot like Google Wave, the ill-fated collaboration tool that was brought down by a lack of interest after many users failed to understand what the product was actually about. With the launch of Paper, Dropbox seems to be taking a different tack than Google did (it's actually attempting to explain what its product does in a more coherent manner) but it's not clear if users are actually looking for a collaboration tool that offers this smorgasbord of features.

Matteus Pan, a project manager at Dropbox, told Engadget that's why Dropbox is rolling out Paper slowly. While anyone can sign up for the beta, the company has set up a waiting list (which may be quite long, given DropBox's following) and will add users to the product at a fairly slow pace, gathering feedback along the way. That feedback will then be used to change the product for future users.

There's a lot to be said for simple, collaborative text editors. After all, documents are among the most-used files in an organization, so helping people work together on them seems like a recipe for success. But Dropbox Paper -- at least from the outside -- doesn't seem to do a whole lot that would sufficiently differentiate it from the competition. Paper's features seem nice, but not quite nice enough to make companies turn away from Google Apps for Work or Office 365.

Dropbox's enterprise product is seeing some traction, but the company seems like it's falling behind as its competitors develop better file syncing for their products. Dropbox's rock-solid sync engine is a boon, but it's not developing new products fast enough to compete with the other businesses that also want in on its market  

What Dropbox needs right now is a big win. Paper could be the product that helps propel the company forward, but it looks like it might need a little something extra first.

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Blair Hanley Frank

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