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Slacker or Team playa? Microsoft's Mr Business takes on messaging's corporate raider
PostIt notes down for the big communications face-off
The early days of the internet provided ways to chat, bicker and "collaborate" with others in the world, and decades later we're still working on making that experience better.
IRC (Internet Relay Chat) ruled the roost for many years but never really found a place in the enterprise world. It isn't complicated to use yet carries a stigma of nerds in their mother's basement combined with very few "enterprise" options.
Slack in 2013 released something more for the everyday user – initially still using an IRC-powered backend, but eventually branching off to their own solution along with adding many native features and integrations.
Slack has been the go-to messaging app for teams for a few years now, with its free entry-level service providing a space for teams to chat, collaborate and show funny gifs to each other. Today, there's more than four million active daily users with more than one million paid for.
Now, Microsoft has released its rival Teams as an open preview for most Office 365 customers. Microsoft has dominated desktop productivity for decades with Office and is seeking to repeat that success online with Office 365. It has a track record, too, in turning new products into market leaders – and of failing on its face, too.
Should Slack be concerned?
The Teams release did produce a strange open letter from Slack that, if nothing else, succeeded in putting some of the focus back onto them.
That brings us to where we are now - Slack the behemoth of the chat room collaboration world, and Microsoft Teams trying to edge it's way into the market, leveraging Office 365 licenses to compete in the same space.
Putting the different plans and options aside, let's look at how the two compare. Slack is the more mature platform, but Microsoft have come close to the feature set in some areas, and surpassed in others.
The core of the two products is trying to achieve the same thing – a centralised place where people can have chat rooms, collaborate, and tie that into other workflows and systems to make communication happen. Third-party application support is available on both, giving you the option of using existing external services rather just theirs. For example, both support Trello, even though Microsoft launched their direct competitor called Planner, which is also a part of the Office 365 suite.
Slack: Third-party integrations maketh the man
As they both serve the same function in the same way there are a lot of similarities. Of greater interest are the differences.
Slack features something called Chat Flow, a time-based feed of the messages sent. You can directly reference someone, but there's no relationship between messages. Teams, however, lets you reply in-line with a message.
There's both positives and negatives to this approach – the feed itself for each channel is based on the time of the root message, rather than replies. Something off screen won't pop back down the bottom. Microsoft's approach on this is to have a bunch of different notification options, and an additional tab to view "Activity".
Activity is made up of two areas; Notifications, which shows you a historical list of times you were involved in a chat (e.g. a response to a message), and Recent, which shows chats in their last replied to order. Personally I find it a bit cumbersome to work out what area to go to and when – this may be due to still adjusting my mindset on the flow of using the product.
UI design of Slack seems to be slicker than Teams. Both have web-based and fat-client options, but as you can see from the screenshots, Slack has worked out how to do its spacing better, whereas Teams leaves a lot of blank space. It's early days for Teams, so I'd expect this to be refined and improved as the product develops.
One of Team's biggest strengths is its integration with other Office 365 services – not really a surprise given this is Microsoft's way, to cross integrate products and especially integrate platform products like Windows and Office with apps.
Having a native and inbuilt file-sharing mechanism, calendar, notes, planner among others make Teams more of an out-the-box, ready-to-go collaboration tool rather than Slack's chat room that comes with optional third-party extras – which may not be available free. For data-compliance reasons a company may look to Teams to keep all data in one place, and aligned with their Office 365 agreement around data storage. There's even options for a Power BI tab.
Teams: Run Office or Office 365? This could be for you
Of course, this means Slack can be more dynamic and do what they want to their product, without trying to unify a variety of services that tie in natively.
There is one big thing missing from Teams, though, and that's external users. Slack lets you invite anyone in, or gain access just by creating a new account and providing an email address. Teams only currently supports users in your Office 365/Azure Active Director tenant. This is a feature that Microsoft has said will be added later, but could be a deal-breaker for many in the meantime.
On the authorisation side, if you want to use single sign-on for Slack, you'll have to go to the top pricing tier. The other features at this tier are mostly going to be necessary at the enterprise level, which comes back to Teams being a more compelling product for the price, assuming they end up having all the same features at launch.
As it's done before in browsers and as it's doing today with virtualisation, Microsoft is throwing "free" at people as the one-two punch to drive update. The other punch is, or course, "integration" with the platform product. With Internet Explorer it was Windows; with Hyper-V it's Windows Server. Team comes free with your Office 365 licence, which is somewhere around the same price as Slack Standard.
Arguably, the Office 365 license provides a lot more value with all the other services attached compared to Slack.
At the end of the day, however, these two products will likely entice two different groups with little overlap.
How will the chips fall in this battle? Chances are, if you're already a member of the Microsoft ecosystem or subject to the Microsoft sales process, then it would make sense to continue that by choosing Teams. It integrates with Office 365 really well, and you're used to the Microsoft way. Microsoft's account managers will be pushing Teams, too, as part of Office 365.
The open-source, Linux and online communities, those using Google Docs – those looking for a free chat system – will probably stick with Slack.
Free is great for those who don't need the enterprise-type features and there's very little reason for them to enter the Microsoft ecosystem with this product. Those who have invested time and money into Slack's support for third-party apps will also find little reason to move across.
Slack should feel threatened. But there is history and precedent on its side: like Google Docs, like Firefox and Chrome and like VMware and KVM, the competition is holding up well against the Microsoft counter-bid. ®