A week of acquisitions tells us a lot about the near future of work

It was a week that seemed dominated by news of acquisitions:

  • Yahoo acquired Astrid, the team task manager application, and it looks like the app will be shut down in 90 days. This led to a scramble by firms like Wunderkind to make it easier for Astrid users to import their downloaded data from Astrid. One rumor is that Yahoo is attempting to counter the acquisition of Orchestra’s Mailbox by Dropbox. Note that this was the seventh acquisition by Yahoo in recent months: StampedOnTheAirSnip.it,  AlikeSummly, and Jybe.
  • Salesforce.com acquired Clipboard, the award-winning file- and link-sharing app, and it simultaneously announced the service would be shutting down June 30, 2013. This deal looks like an team acquihire, with the Clipboard team being assigned to some Salesforce.com’s “singular platform for building new capabilities.” But that might be doublespeak for a push by Saleforce.com to get into the huge market for file sharing led by Dropbox and Box.
  • Box acquired Crocodoc, and Box CEO Aaron Levie told me that he would continue licensing the document rendering service’s offering to his competitors as well as using its market dominance to push the combined companies ahead.

On one level, this is just the way that things happen in the social tools marketplace, or even the larger software marketplace. But when you reflect on the buying spree going on in the sector, a number of trends seem to be developing.

First, there is a well-known talent deficit in the marketplace, and companies like Yahoo, Salesforce.com, and Box need bright, hardworking developers with proven track records in bringing tools to market. They need literally as many as they can beg, borrow, or steal. Acquisition may be more expensive that hiring individuals one by one, but it may be pennies on the dollar relative to the costs of pulling individuals into a working connective that can produce high-quality products.

Second, these larger, more well-established firms have looked out at the horizon, and they know that there is a huge transition looming for enterprise social software. Hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent over the next decade as companies drop the old-school software architecture based on in-house servers, behind-the-firewall on-premise software, and desktop PC devices. The transition to cloud-based software, Software as a Service, and smart “proximal” devices will upend nearly every principle of 20th century enterprise computing. (Note: I use ‘”proximal,” not mobile, for the smart devices we have with us at all times, because 60 percent of their use is in the home and the office, so mobility is not their defining characteristic, although they are mobile. They are proximal because we keep them close to hand: generally, never out of reach.) These companies believe –as do I — that the entire model of enterprise information technology and the practices surrounding its sale, provisioning, care, and feeding are set to be revolutionized. And so competitors in this space have to make a lot of small bets, since the specifics of how the new-world order will fall out are unknowable. So they need to acquire a lot of smaller, promising technologies and push ahead with them, to see what is going to work.

Third, some elements of the near future world of work are fairly clear, even if we can’t see all of it yet.

For example, we are moving to a world where file sharing and synchronization will be the foundation of social applications. This is a given. However, the vendors providing our operating platforms — Apple, Google, and Windows — have fumbled the future, allowing upstarts like Box and Dropbox (and to a lesser extent companies like Clip.it, Clipboard, and Crocodoc) to take the lead in file sharing and sync.

Clayton Christensen is laughing somewhere, because this may be the point of leverage for an upsetting of the operating platform market place. If I were Tim Cook, I’d peel $10 billion off the company’s enormous wad of cash for Dropbox and drop the iCloud nonsense.

Other things we can extrapolate about the near future of work include the fact that task management will continue to be the central theme of cowork, even as the transition from older-style collaborative work to postnormal cooperative work proceeds. Tasks will persist as a means to break work into an atomic level, and people will continue to coordinate their activities through the life cycle and aggregation of tasks. The mechanisms for sharing them may shift from storing them in collaborative contexts to pulling them through social networks, but share them we will.

So, another week, another polishing of the crystal ball.