Over the past couple of years, there has been an intense price war within cloud storage offerings.
Although this war has been brewing for a long time, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) really kicked things off in earnest in March 2014 when it announced a handful of price cuts for Google Drive. The price drops at that time were very aggressive, dropping 100 GB of storage from $5 per month to $2 per month, and 1 TB of storage from $50 per month to $10 per month. In October of that year, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) said it would offer unlimited storage to Office 365 subscribers. Just this month, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) joined in and dropped its own iCloud pricing tiers.
This is all on the consumer front. The war has been arguably even more intense on the enterprise side with Amazon.com AWS (NASDAQ:AMZN), Google Compute, and Microsoft Azure. Inevitably, cloud storage has always been destined to suffer from commoditization and the erosion of pricing power. This should come as no surprise. The only surprising thing is that this didn't happen sooner.
But as the tech giants race to the bottom, using low-cost cloud storage as a way to cross-sell other more profitable and stickier services, who ends up with the most to lose?
The first mover is now in last place
Dropbox was the first start-up to truly catalyze the cloud storage market nearly a decade ago. The company was one of the first to foresee the secular shift from local storage to cloud storage, and its clever automatic syncing of files across devices garnered millions of loyal users, including myself (I've used Dropbox since almost the very beginning). Dropbox now has 400 million users.
As Dropbox grew in popularity, Apple attempted to scoop up the company and its promising engineering talent in 2009. Steve Jobs personally met with Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston, only for Houston to spurn Jobs. After getting turned down, Jobs kindly informed Houston that he was coming after him, pointing out that Dropbox was more of a feature than an actual product. Five years later, Apple would launch iCloud Drive.
Dropbox's initial business model was expectedly offering a free tier of limited storage, and charging for higher amounts. Dropbox used to regularly host events where users could earn more free storage by referring friends or completing scavenger hunts.
For a while there, I thought Dropbox was on to something truly innovative. It not only synced files across devices, but also began offering third-party developer APIs that allowed apps to sync data cross devices as well. Strategically, that could allow Dropbox to turn cloud storage into a platform with high switching costs if it could grow enough third-party supporters.
But consumers aren't always known for a propensity to open wallets, particularly when there are free tiers of a service and lots of competition. It's worth noting here that Dropbox cut its own prices just five months after Google did last year.
Show me the money
Invariably, stories like this always turn to the enterprise for more potent monetization opportunities though, and Dropbox is no exception. Consider longtime Dropbox rival Box (NYSE:BOX), which went public earlier this year. Box has focused on the enterprise right from the very start, and quickly began competing directly with the likes of Microsoft.
When it comes to enterprise cloud storage, collaboration tools are a clear requisite to even earn a conversation with an IT decision maker. Here's where Dropbox starts to lose its luster. Dropbox had a first mover advantage in the form of a technological lead, a strong brand among tech-savvy consumers, and a growing user base. But as the years passed it squandered this lead and became distracted. It got distracted by making flashy acquisitions (such as the popular Mailbox email app) in an attempt to grow its stable, while it should have been focusing its efforts on building better collaboration tools.
To be clear, Dropbox now has 130,000 Dropbox for Business customers, and the private start-up's 2014 revenue has been estimated at $300 million to $400 million. But Dropbox is currently valued at over $10 billion, which would put it at a 25x sales multiple. Box is Dropbox's closest peer, and Box trades at just 6x sales right now. Box currently has about 50,000 paying customers. Although Box has fewer corporate customers, the smaller company has focused more intently on addressing the enterprise market with a greater emphasis on security and collaboration. Box posted revenue of $216.4 million last year.
At this point, Dropbox's valuation and prospects are on mighty thin ice. The giants can easily afford the ongoing price war since cloud storage is a tertiary pursuit for them; Box and Microsoft have since settled their differences and are now strategic partners; yet Dropbox enjoys an unjustifiable premium to its closest peer. As the war wages on, Dropbox has the most to lose in more ways than one.
Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Amazon.com, Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.