Time is running out for Box competitors

April 14, 2014: 2:37 PM ET

The clock is ticking for enterprise file-sharing companies after their brightest star, Box, filed for an IPO.

Box CEO Aaron Levie and Fortune senior writer Jessi Hempel at the 2014 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas in March 2014.

Box CEO Aaron Levie and Fortune senior writer Jessi Hempel at the 2014 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas in March 2014.

FORTUNE -- How many enterprise file-sharing services whose names don't start and end with the word "Box" can the market support? Probably not as many as are currently out there.

The long-term future of Box, the high-flying enterprise file-sharing company that filed for a $250 million initial public offering in March, is no slam-dunk. But earlier-stage and less heavily financed startups may face an increasingly shaky future in light of the Los Altos, Calif.-based company's impending IPO. Why? Box and its consumer-centric peer, Dropbox, have established themselves as the dominant pure-play companies in the wider file-sharing and syncing space. Meanwhile, heavyweights like Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) have developed their own solutions. Of the many smaller startups that remain, a handful are likely to be quickly snapped up by large enterprise companies that don't yet have a file-sharing solution, and an even tinier fraction will make it as niche players, catering to specific verticals like government organizations.

As for the others?

"A lot of these guys will run out of cash," says Jeetu Patel, general manager of EMC's (EMC) Syncplicity division, a Box-like service acquired by the data storage company in 2012. According to Patel, there were upwards of 40 players in the space a few years back, when EMC started shopping around. Fast-forward to today, and he estimates that number has doubled.

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Case in point: A recent report from Forrester Research evaluates 16 of the "most significant solution providers" in the market, including smaller players like Accellion, Alfresco, Egnyte, and WatchDox. "But this market is evolving so rapidly that new vendors make claims on it every day," wrote the report's authors, Ted Schadler and Rob Koplowitz. Of course, that rapid proliferation of seemingly similar businesses has meant that not all of them are attracting as much funding -- or as many customers -- as an Andreessen Horowitz-backed player like Box. (Then again, they're also not bleeding as much cash as the soon-to-be-public startup, either.)

"Consolidation is inevitable," says Ryan Kalember, chief product officer of Palo Alto, Calif.-based WatchDox, which bills itself as a more secure provider of sync and sharing services.

Several larger tech companies have already placed their bets. EMC has Syncplicity, Citrix Systems (CTXS) bought another competitor called ShareFile, and earlier this year VMware (VMW) shelled out $1.54 billion for AirWatch, a mobile device management company that also offers syncing capabilities. More M&A activity is likely on the horizon: According to an industry source, traditional storage companies -- think Western Digital (WDC) and NetApp (NTAP) -- have been eyeing acquisitions in the file-sharing space. Such a move could also make sense for legacy enterprise software providers like Oracle (ORCL) or SAP (SAP); certainly, both companies can afford it. Cisco Systems (CSCO), which has been moving into software, could also be a potential acquirer in this space -- and interestingly, company CTO Padmasree Warrior recently joined Box's board of directors.

MORE: How to tell the difference between Box and Dropbox

"The [upcoming] Box IPO has catalyzed interest in this space," says Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of file-sharing site Hightail. But it's not "winner takes all" quite yet. "There will be more and more specialization and differentiation," he says.

Every file-sharing CEO interviewed for this story -- along with the above, Fortune spoke to companies like Huddle and Egnyte -- said they've noticed a significant uptick in interest from potential acquirers in recent months. Not all of them will end up getting bought, of course. And some are convinced they will succeed as standalone companies, following in Box's footsteps.

"I really hope they can do a great IPO," says Vineet Jain, CEO of Egnyte. "If they do, they can increase our valuation. And if they mess it up, it just sours the market."

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