There were literally hundreds of announcements at AWS’ recent re:Invent conference. But one area which was starkly void of news was in AWS SaaS offerings. By way of context, AWS is well-known as the creator of the cloud-computing paradigm and leads the market in its public cloud infrastructure offerings. Over the last few years, AWS has moved up the stack and provided a large number of platform-level services as well – databases, machine learning, container management and the like.

In parallel, however, AWS has also introduced a few true SaaS products. This is an important trend since, arguably, the biggest area that AWS cedes dominance to its main competitors is in the SaaS place. Microsoft Azure, widely regarded as the number two public cloud vendor, has the entire Microsoft SaaS franchise to leverage. Not only Office 365 but Microsoft’s other business apps – CRM and ERP for example. For its part, Google has its own SaaS offerings with many customers enjoying the fact that Google’s G-Suite office productivity offering is another side of the Google Cloud Platform coin.

But if you’re Amazon, without any historical end-user footprint, you’re running hard to catch up – and it is for this reason that over recent years we have seen AWS announce services such as email, file sharing, and virtual desktops. But, as I mentioned earlier, there really was a dearth of information about these services at re:Invent.

Now of course re:Invent is a very busy show, and there is only limited opportunity to highlight different product areas, but it would be easy to come to the conclusion that AWS, seeing the firm advantage they have in the (for example) core infrastructure area, would be lacking in appetite for investing heavily in these areas where it is very much behind the times.

Given this context, I was very interested to meet with Pravjit Tiwana, AWS’ General Manager of the WorkDocs business unit. For those unaware of it, WorkDocs is AWS’ file sharing and sync product. It is a direct competitor to standalone file sharing products such as Box and Dropbox and, perhaps more importantly, the offerings from its key cloud competitors, Microsoft’s OneDrive and Google’s Drive. I had a wide-ranging talk with Tiwana who was eager to assure me that, while WorkDocs is still early, he is driving his team hard to build features which will help it compete.

My perspective comes from the fact that, as someone who doesn’t work within a large organization, my work and my home process and data are one and the same. Taking a picture of a conference keynote to include in a blog post, for example, is no different to snapping a picture of the family on a hike to share to Facebook. I’ve always been a believer that work life and home life don’t necessarily need to be siloed from each other. Given this perspective, in the context of a file-sharing product, it is hugely valuable that the offering is tied into adjacent services – as a user of an Android device and Google Drive, the fact that Google Photos is a first-class extension of the franchise is really valuable. What it means is that it is virtually seamless to capture, share, edit and store images, for example.

I realize, however, that there are far fewer people who enjoy my particular situation and many individuals exist in a world where their work life and home life are, by design or by policy, entirely separate. For these people, it is actually helpful to have a hard context shift between a work and a home function. It is for this reason that such brutal examples as using separate devices for home and work use, or slightly less stark, having a ring-fenced section of a mobile device which is only for work usage, is popular. It strikes me as a pretty horrible way to work, but that’s a subject for another day.

Given all of these thoughts, it was fascinating to sit down with Tiwana and have a fairly frank conversation about WorkDocs’ role in the market. Tiwana was refreshingly honest and admitted that the product he shepherds is somewhat late to the market, and hasn’t yet found its feet. He advocated for a “wait and see” approach, indicating that it will take a year or so until WorkDocs is at a level of maturity that will allow a fair comparison against other competitive products in the market.

On the enterprise versus consumer discussion, Tiwana was emphatic. While totally understanding my personal use case, and the use case for consumer individuals, he was clear: WorkDocs is an enterprise-level product and his customers are clearly advocating for a separation between work and home files. It is for this reason that he is building the product with significant flexibility in terms of deployment and granularity around security. It is also the reason that WorkDocs is deeply integrated into WorkSpaces, AWS’ virtual desktop offering. Now I’m not a big fan of VDI, in fact, I have been a loud opponent of it. But again, I can accept that, while unpalatable, VDI does have some part to play in enterprise transformation from very traditional, fixed desktop paradigms, to more dynamic mobile-centric ones.

Anyway – Tiwana is pretty clear that the combinations of very flexible and highly-granular options around deployment and security will help give WorkDocs and edge against the multitude of competitors it has. I am mindful of Citrix’ somewhat brief and sadly failed foray into the space with ShareFile. ShareFile was another highly flexible and well-regarded standalone file sharing product that Citrix acquired a few years ago – alas, despite ShareFile having similar value propositions to Citrix as WorkDocs does to AWS (including tie-ins to Citrix’ VDI offerings), it didn’t really move the needle and Citrix has essentially turned its back on it.

The future for WorkDocs at AWS

Tiwana was emphatic that AWS is committed to WorkDocs but I’m not 100% sure. If I look at the plethora of products in the AWS portfolio – WorkDocs is one where there is little or no competitive edge for AWS. In the vast majority of AWS’ other areas, it has a massively compelling economic, scale, technological or market-perception edge. Not so WorkDocs which is seen as a follower, and a not particularly fast one at that.

I may be wrong, and WorkDocs may have a bright future – but the fact that there was no mention of AWS’ SaaS offerings (including WorkDocs) at re:Invent makes me wonder. Tiwana is a smart guy and understands his product space deeply, the question is more of a strategic one for AWS executives – watch this space.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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