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It's Microsoft Teams vs best-of-breed in the battle of the collaborative canvas

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright July 17, 2019
A review of the leading contenders in the battle to dominate the enterprise collaborative canvas market

Two man boxing

The battle to become the core platform for digital collaboration in the enterprise is suddenly heating up. In the past month or so, we've had Slack's IPO, the launch of the new Dropbox app, and last week Microsoft revealed its Teams collaboration service has overtaken even Slack's meteoric rise to reach 13 million daily active users (and 19 million on a weekly basis).

So who's winning? Two years ago, my advice was that no single vendor could offer a complete solution. Instead, enterprises should assemble a collection of services to form a collaborative canvas to support effective digital teamwork — "a flexible, connected framework for participants to digitally share, organize, track and progress the work of a team." Whether delivered as a single platform or composed from a partner ecosystem, I defined these eight essential characteristics:

  • Messaging — the always-on conversational layer
  • Content — frictionless access to shared files
  • Sync — keeping everyone on the same page
  • Search — context-aware to find the right answers fast
  • Applications — seamless access to shared functionality
  • People — optimizing the human dynamics of teamwork
  • Permissions — policy-compliant identity and access management
  • Workflow — mapping progress towards the collaborative goal

Two years on, the leading contenders have made big strides in maturing their offerings. There are several that can now act as the core platform of an enterprise collaborative canvas, while plugging in key elements from an ecosystem of partners.

Will one emerge to dominate? I suspect the market is big and diverse enough to accommodate several of them. For a long time I've held the view that collaboration is one of the core application pillars of the digital enterprise, rivaling CRM or ERP in stature and market size. There is plenty of white space for everyone to grow into as organizations modernize and transform the way they work. But it's still interesting to rate how each player is doing, especially as the last time I did this I was still in the process of working out how all the pieces fit together.

Microsoft, the suite king

If collaborative canvas is indeed the battleground to which my headline alludes, then Microsoft wins hand down for those looking for a complete suite from a single vendor. It's the only platform that incorporates strong, reasonably well integrated versions of all eight essential elements.

If you're happy relying on a single vendor to do everything — especially if you're already standardized on Office 365, Active Directory, Skype, perhaps Azure and Dynamics too — then adding Microsoft Teams to complete the picture is a no-brainer. That probably explains the massive surge in Teams adoption — it's just the obvious choice.

The problem with suite solutions is that it's hard for a vendor to keep all the elements at the top of their game — a point that Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield was quick to make in an appearance at a Fortune event shortly after Microsoft's announcement of its user numbers. Just for good measure, he threw in all the other reasons why Microsoft might fail, citing Bing as a likely precedent, before concluding that Slack had the edge simply by virtue of being "disruptive."

In a nutshell, that word — or rather, its absence in this case — probably sums up both the strength and the weakness of Microsoft's proposition. If you want evolution and carefully managed transformation then Microsoft's the safe choice. If you want to move as fast as the early adopters, then Microsoft probably isn't what you need.

Slack, the dynamic team leader

If you want a battle of the giants, a Kong to take on Godzilla, then Slack is the polar opposite of Microsoft. Slack customers are early adopters of a highly disruptive, digital-native pattern of team working, as we've documented in user stories from Monzo and Zendesk among others.

Slack is also a champion of the best-of-breed model, encouraging easy connectivity to a growing ecosystem of partners such as workflow automation provider Workato and customer service knowledge management platform Guru. That ecosystem connectivity has catapulted Slack into the lead as the platform of choice on which to build a best-of-breed collaborative canvas, especially if your business revolves around dynamic team activity.

Meanwhile, Slack customers are increasingly drawn from established companies, such as software giant Oracle with with 139,000 global users and games maker Electronic Arts with 13,000. The vendor has been learning from these early adopters what the enterprise market demands in terms of reliability, security and governance. That customer base currently skews towards technology, media and entertainment businesses, but only because these industries have been the first to be disrupted by digital technology. Where they lead, others follow.

Google, the understated giant

Google's presence in the digital collaboration market is akin to an iceberg — not much visible, but a lot going on under the surface. With a product called G Suite, you'd think it ought to be a suite player, but it suffers from serious weaknesses in several of the eight essentials. Its strengths are in Gmail and Docs, and those two assets make it an important participant in any best-of-breed scenario. But until it beefs up its other capabilities, it will only ever be a bit player in someone else's ecosystem.

Dropbox, the dark horse to watch

I have to confess, I was hugely impressed by the new Dropbox app, which launched last month, and I'll have more to say about its genesis in a follow-up post. I think Dropbox has done a great job of turning the familiar folder metaphor into a collaborative canvas that incorporates all of the key ingredients. Its sync capabilities have always set the standard for others to follow, and its engineers have done a great job with search that it ought to trumpet more loudly. Integration to the ecosystem of partner applications, including Microsoft and Google, is very strong.

My only worry is that the app is almost too good, perhaps a little further ahead of its time than users are yet ready for. That's why I pressed CEO Drew Houston on its go-to-market. I think Dropbox will have to educate the market more than it anticipates. We'll know more when Dropbox releases the first metrics about initial take-up.

Box, the enterprise content king

I've come to the conclusion that messaging and workflow is much more fundamental to enterprise collaboration than content. But in businesses where content remains mission critical — which includes very significant industries such as professional services, financial services and marketing services — a content platform that connects well to other services can act as the cornerstone of an enterprise collaborative canvas.

This is why Box remains a company to watch, as my colleague Derek Du Preez recently observed:

Box is piecing together the building blocks for a compelling content platform for the modern, digital enterprise.

Box has put a lot of investment into enterprise security and compliance. It also integrates well to other services and has invested in several different flavors of workflow.

The following pack

There are several other vendors worth mentioning because of what they bring to the collaborative landscape, even if they're not yet among the leading contenders.

Asana — I like the ambition of the management team at Asana but I haven't yet come round to their view that collaboration is a subset of work management. I'll keep an open mind though.

Facebook — Facebook Workplace provides a familiar interface for enterprise messaging and collaboration — we use it at diginomica, and we've seen some strong use cases, most notably at GlaxoSmithKline. But while ease-of-use is a good start, Facebook has not yet invested sufficiently in the full range of characteristics needed to distinguish itself in this field.

Atlassian — For a brief moment, Atlassian seemed to be challenging to be a leading colloborative canvas platform. But within months, the Australian developer tools vendor had shut down its HipChat and Stride products. The episode is a testament to the high stakes and competitive pressures in the digital collaboration market. Full credit though to Atlassian for recognizing the writing on the wall and deciding to put renewed focus on its core products.

Image credit - Two men boxing © Tadija Savic -

Disclosure - Dropbox funded the author's travel to attend the launch of its app last month, and Slack contributed to travel to attend its Frontiers conference in April.

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