Microsoft Teams will have its work cut out catching Slack

2 Nov 2016

Productivity apps are all the rage with flexible workers. But is Microsoft Teams open enough? Image: Rawpixel/Shutterstock

In taking on Slack, one does not simply bundle Microsoft Teams into Office 365 and expect to start a revolution in the workplace. But the revolution might have already happened.

Today (2 November) Microsoft revealed Microsoft Teams, its rival to Slack.

The new product will be part of Office 365 and is designed to make team-based communications simpler and more social. It will utilise threaded comments as well as some nifty features, like being able to reply inline to conversations.

CEO Satya Nadella said that Microsoft Teams will bring together Chat, Meeting, Notes, Office, Planner, Power BI and other extensions and applications to help teams communicate and collaborate.

In some respects, Microsoft Teams looks identical to Slack– with a side ribbon that shows who is online and up for a chat. In other ways, it looks like a socialised version of Outlook.

One thing that Microsoft does very well is software, and the integration with staple Microsoft products could be a game changer.

It follows the recent launch of Facebook Workplace, which takes collaborative tools that Facebook had been using internally and allies them with familiar features, like Messenger and Groups.

But did anyone tell Microsoft, or even Facebook for that matter, that it would be no easy matter to just win back early adopters from their chosen platforms? Most likely, growth will come through the untapped workforces that haven’t yet used Slack, Trello or Wrike.

Okay, who started this?

Microsoft Teams will have its work cut out catching Slack

The new Microsoft Teams bears more than a passing resemblance to Slack. Image: Microsoft

In fact, the reason why products like Slack or Trello came into existence is because many of the productivity apps and platforms like Outlook, PowerPoint and SharePoint became unwieldy for the average worker who just wanted to get stuff done.

What people wanted was the ease and finesse of social media merged with the promise of collaborative tools like Google Docs.

What they got was Slack and a whole new generation of enterprise productivity players, all too keen to eat Microsoft’s lunch.

The popularity of Slack – a product created by CEO Stewart Butterfield and colleagues who needed a tool to communicate as they built other software products – was a response to the clutter caused by existing work tools like Office.

Last year at the Web Summit, the founder of Trello, Michael Pryor, told me that Trello was created as a tool for his team at Fog Creek to get a high-level perspective on what was happening with projects, steering away from the white-board mentality.

In keeping with this mentality, the founder and CEO of Wrike, Andrew Filev, predicted the death of email within 10 years.

In an open letter to Microsoft dripping with passive-aggressive sentiment, Butterfield pointed out that if Microsoft Teams wants to succeed, the software giant would need to make it open platform for other applications to flourish upon.

He said that more than 6m apps have been installed on Slack teams so far.

“We are deeply committed to making our customers’ experience of their existing tools even better, no matter who makes them,” Butterfield wrote.

“We know that playing nice with others isn’t exactly your MO, but if you can’t offer people an open platform that brings everything together into one place and makes their lives dramatically simpler, it’s just not going to work.”

And that’s just it. Can Microsoft make Teams a personal passion rather than another product category, or box it needs to tick to stay relevant?

Adopters of products like Slack have done so because on certain levels it spoke to their needs for cohesiveness, clarity and above all, communication. Something they could not enjoy on existing software products.

But ultimately, Slack’s openness and ease of connection to other apps and services made it the right bet.

Slack last week revealed it has 1.25m paying customers, a drop in the ocean compared to Microsoft’s vast user base.

But for Microsoft to make Teams really succeed against Slack, it needs to do listen to users and give them products that they want. This is something it failed to do with top-heavy, expensive and unwieldy Office products that gave rise to the need for alternatives like Slack, Trello and Wrike.

Above all, for Teams to work, it has to be a labour of love.

Butterfield is right about that at least.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years