Box buys Crocodoc to display files more beautifully in any browser

The company believes Crocodoc will help it appeal to users in vertical industries

Box has acquired Crocodoc, a five-year-old company that provides technology to display and annotate documents at high fidelity in a browser. It is Box's first acquisition since 2009.

Crocodoc is geared toward developers today -- its technology is used by LinkedIn, Yammer, SAP, and Box rival Dropbox, among others -- but CEO Ryan Damico says the company has always wanted to reach end-users directly. Integrating the technology into Box's document storage and collaboration service will help it reach that goal.

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What does Box get out of the deal? Box already allows users to view documents in a browser, but CEO Aaron Levie said the company was attracted to Crocodoc in part because of its speedy, high-fidelity rendering: It's possible to zoom into a PDF file (for instance) without much lag or delay. Crocodoc uses HTML5 and the SVG (Scalable Vector Graphic) format, and renders the files in the cloud.

"It's really the back-end piece where years of labor have gone into this," said Levie. "There are an unbelievable amount of edge cases -- getting every single format to look this good is the hard part."

Perhaps more important from a strategic point of view, Crocodoc's technology will be available to the approximately 17,000 developers building on the Box platform, not just to Box end customers. Box also believes Crocodoc will help it appeal to users in vertical industries -- an increasing area of focus for the company. For instance, it could be used by medical app makers to display medical documents and files, or by the architectural industry to display CAD files.

Box product chief Sam Schillace, who created the technology that would eventually become Google Docs and worked at Google for eight years before joining Box last fall, explained the importance of display in collaboration.

"As an enterprise company, you are competing with consumer quality end user experience. You can't just shove something into the enterprise and expect it to work. People won't use it." He pointed to an app that the team used to present information about the deal to reporters -- the app ran entirely in Safari on an iPad and displayed a series of high-fidelity slides in a rotating carousel format. Box said it took about two weeks to build. "That carousel viewer is unlike anything you've ever seen in any other app. Any sales guy in the world would love to have it."

One important limitation to understand: Crocodoc allows for viewing and simple annotations only. If users want to edit a document, they still have to download it and open it in a format-compatible application -- just like today. But Schillace hinted that document creation is part of Box's long-term plan, even if Crocodoc won't be the technology to provide it.

Terms of the acquisition were not revealed, but Crocodoc has raised about $1 million from investors, said Damico, and is profitable today. The companies will continue to support existing Crocodoc customers, and Damico will join Box as the director of content and platform services.

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