Does Slack really think it can win its anti-trust case against Microsoft?

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright July 23, 2020
Slack's complaint to the European Commission against Microsoft Teams is about more than anti-trust - we all have a stake in this battle to dominate digital teamwork

Microsoft Teams splash on W10 startup
(via the author)

Last Thursday, I installed the Microsoft Teams desktop app after I was invited to join a video meeting with a business contact. Every day since then, as soon as I boot up my PC and log in to Windows, the first thing I see is a huge box in the middle of the screen inviting me to sign in to Teams, or if I don't have an account, to "Sign up for free." It's annoying, it's intrusive, and if it was any other vendor I would consider it malware. But this is Microsoft, I reason, so it must be a Windows thing. And I can imagine this is just the sort of thing that Teams competitor Slack sees as Microsoft's "illegal and anti-competitive practice of abusing its market dominance" in a complaint filed with the European Commission yesterday.

I know that if I dig around I can work out how to stop Teams from pushing itself in my face every morning — a quick Google search reveals thousands upon thousands of results for disable teams startup windows (appropriately, there's even more on Bing). I'm clearly far from alone in my irritation. But as a long-suffering Windows user, I've gotten used to the idea that every so often you have to set aside a couple of hours to chase down the fix to some ridiculous issue you shouldn't have to deal with in the first place.

I'm old enough to remember the days when it was a huge struggle to change the default search engine in your browser, or even further back when every Windows install or upgrade automatically tried to make its free-of-charge Internet Explorer the default browser. The thing is, those behaviors led to Microsoft losing cases brought before the competition authorities. Surely it's not stupid enough to get into the same kind of trouble all over again?

Tit-for-tat between Microsoft and Slack

Slack's case is slightly different than those precedents, in that it's focused on the inclusion of Teams in the Office productivity suite. But according to David Schellhase, General Counsel at Slack, Microsoft is back to all its old habits in this new context:

Microsoft is reverting to past behavior. They created a weak, copycat product and tied it to their dominant Office product, force installing it and blocking its removal, a carbon copy of their illegal behavior during the ‘browser wars.’ Slack is asking the European Commission to take swift action to ensure Microsoft cannot continue to illegally leverage its power from one market to another by bundling or tying products.

Slack isn't providing further details on how Microsoft is "force installing" teams and "blocking its removal." Those details are set out in Slack's "confidential" complaint for the European Commission's eyes only, its Brussels-based PR agency (not the local agency I usually deal with) told me. We shall have to wait to find out more in due course.

Microsoft naturally refutes the characterization of Teams as a "weak, copycat product," with some justification in view of recent announcements that have significantly strengthened its video conferencing capabilities and bolstered its credentials as an application and automation platform. The Windows giant responded by casting shade on Slack's weakness in video conferencing, which is currently undergoing an upgrade in partnership with Amazon. Microsoft's official statement on the Slack complaint honored the tit-for-tat tradition of anti-trust actions:

We created Teams to combine the ability to collaborate with the ability to connect via video, because that's what people want. With COVID-19, the market has embraced Teams in record numbers while Slack suffered from its absence of video-conferencing. We're committed to offering customers not only the best of new innovation, but a wide variety of choice in how they purchase and use the product.

In any case, why shouldn't Microsoft bundle new teamwork functionality into what is, after all, a productivity suite? Slack's aim, according to people the FT has spoken to, is to have the European Commission dictate that Microsoft sell Teams separately from its Office bundle. But wouldn't that be bad for customers, artificially pushing up the price of digital teamwork?

Suite vs best-of-breed

Slack's position is that what's bad for customers is having Microsoft entrap them in its proprietary landscape. It presents itself as the champion of best-of-breed flexibility against Microsoft's single-vendor suite pitch. Jonathan Prince, Vice President of Communications and Policy at Slack, seeks to rally support with an appeal to a higher purpose:

This is much bigger than Slack versus Microsoft — this is a proxy for two very different philosophies for the future of digital ecosystems, gateways versus gatekeepers.

Slack offers an open, flexible approach that compounds the threat to Microsoft because it is a gateway to innovative, best-in-class technology that competes with the rest of Microsoft’s stack and gives customers the freedom to build solutions that meet their needs. We want to be the 2% of your software budget that makes the other 98% more valuable; they want 100% of your budget every time.

Schellhase elaborated on this argument in a press conference yesterday, alleging that Microsoft, although it is keen to integrate other services into Teams, is far less enthusiastic about Teams integrating to third party services:

Their public APIs are just enough to create a minimum product, but it's not enough to create the experience our joint customers want.

What some observers have found odd is that it's only a week or two since Slack's CEO Stewart Butterfield was at pains to point out that Teams isn't competitive with what Slack actually does, anyhow. But a month earlier, he was complaining that Microsoft certainly sees Slack as competitive with Teams, telling the Wall Street Journal:

They want to kill us, as opposed to have a great product and make customers happy.

Although it has made its first move in Europe, Slack is also considering similar actions in the US and other jurisdictions, its lawyers told reporters.

My take

Anti-trust actions may purport to be about what's lawful, but when it comes down to it they're all about politics, marketing and power plays. That's why you hear so much grandstanding from the participants. Cases like these present an extra opportunity to get your message out to the market. Microsoft is pushing its suite message, Slack is talking up its best-of-breed credentials. Lawyers may be expensive, but those column inches are priceless.

The politics dictate Slack's choice of the European Commission as its first port of call for this case. This is where Slack is likely to get its most sympathetic hearing, particularly in view of Microsoft's history with the European authorities. Slack's PR agency in Brussels set a suitably sycophantic tone:

Europe has been a clear leader in trying to establish a digital economy that fosters healthy competition and protects innovation.

But Slack must be careful not to underestimate its opponent. Microsoft has learned a lot about dealing with the Commission and has a formidable team on the ground in Brussels.

The other element here is the power play. There's a sense in which this is not about the competition authorities at all. What matters to Slack is placing a line in the sand and putting Microsoft on notice that it's going to stand up for itself. The aim is not to win, but to be seen to be fighting. So long as there's an anti-trust case going on, Microsoft product managers and marketing teams are going to have to take extra care not to take any actions that will undermine Microsoft's defense of this action. That adds psychological and compliance pressures that will inevitably weigh on them. The extra scrutiny will be familiar to Microsoft, but irksome at the same time.

Both sides will be aware that this battle is not going to be decided by the competition authorities. Neither side will win the legal case — as on previous occasions, political factors will impose a compromise. At the end of the day, the important decision will be handed down in the court of market opinion. The fact that it has come to legal action so early only serves to underline how important this battle is.

As I wrote the other week when picking up Ben Thompson's commentary on Slack and Teams, digital teamwork is becoming as crucial today as the browser and the desktop operating system were to earlier generations in their time. The race to become the default collaborative canvas for digital teamwork is a battle to dominate the future of digitally connected, frictionless enterprise. What's at stake here is not just the fate of Microsoft Teams or Slack — all our futures are tied up in the outcome of this battle.