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Slack's Amazon partnership is about apps, not video

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 5, 2020
Slack's tie-up with Amazon is about much more than video calling and Teams - it's about Slack as a platform to connect apps

Slack AWS partnership - logos
(via Slack)

The conventional wisdom about Slack's partnership with Amazon, announced yesterday, is that it's all about video and voice calling in Slack and competing with Microsoft Teams. What it's really about is integrating applications into Slack.

Part of the confusion is down to the conventional wisdom about Slack, which is that it's just a messaging app, a modern version of IRC with a few bells and whistles bolted on. In fact, if you look at how a lot of enterprises actually use Slack, its most significant value is as a conversational access layer to a whole range of applications that headlessly plug into it, including AWS itself. Slack's AWS Chatbot, introduced a few weeks ago, allows developers to receive notifications, retrieve diagnostic information, issue AWS commands or create support cases, and initiate workflows that invoke Lambda functions, all from within a Slack channel.

There are many other similar integrations, into enterprise applications such as Salesforce and Workday, customer-facing apps such as Zendesk, Intercom and Hubspot, other collaboration tools such as Atlassian, Box, Dropbox and Zoom, workflow from Workato, and much more.

These integrations have turned Slack from a messaging layer into an alternative user interface for many of the functions these other applications provide. As Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield explains:

The movement from inboxes to channels, as you've heard me talk about probably too much at this point, that's an inevitability. That's a huge advantage. But I think Slack really comes into its own when it's also a lightweight fabric for systems integration.

Focusing on shared channels

This is becoming an increasingly important area of focus for Slack in the context of its shared channels function. This currently allows a Slack customer to set up a channel to which it can invite participants from another organization. It will soon be extended to support multiple organizations — and that becomes a jumping-off point for Slack to become a platform that supports workflows between multiple organizations across different applications. As Butterfield explained yesterday in a call with Wall St analysts to discuss Slack's Q1 earnings:

As we see increased adoption, there's increased opportunities for platform usage that crosses organizational boundaries. That could be purchase orders, statements of work, contracts being signed, service tickets going back and forth or this and that ...

The intersection of platform and shared channels, I think it's going to be really a significant one for us. Allowing more parties but also more content and more applications and more workflows to come into the environment, I think is going to be hugely beneficial.

It doesn't mean that we want to bring all of your software into Slack. Part of our thesis is the proliferation [of best-of-btreed apps] is going to continue more or less forever. What we want to do is connect them in a way that makes it easy as possible for people to get to what they do.

Looking to the future with AWS

Butterfield also hinted that the partnership with Amazon opens up the potential later on to give people tools to easily create ad-hoc applications:

We really want to allow people to create the kind of very simple applications that you find inside a company, that if you go back in a time machine a little bit, you would have seen people creating with VBScript and Access databases 20 years ago. And working with AWS, that is something that's a little bit more forward-looking besides the integration we're doing now.

Alongside the agreement to migrate Slack's native voice and video call functions to use the Amazon Chime service, the two companies also announced a new integration of the Amazon AppFlow integration service into Slack. This supports data transfers and transformations to and from AWS services such as S3 and Redshift, triggered by business events, scheduling or on demand.

Slack also revealed that it has signed an enterprise-wide agreement with Amazon that will see the digital teamwork platform rolled out across all Amazon businesses, including AWS. Slack is deepening its commmitment to AWS as its preferred cloud provider, including offering enterprise customers a data residency option to choose which country or region their data is stored in.

My take

As Butterfield explained in the company's earnings call yesterday, deploying Slack across an enterprise is complicated. That's why comparisons to Microsoft Teams miss the point — Microsoft isn't trying to knit processes together across the enterprise (well not yet, anyway) in the way that Slack aims to do.

You can look at Slack linking up with Amazon as one of those enemy-of-my-enemy alliances — both companies face direct competition from Microsoft. But I'm much more intrigued by the notion of building an integration layer using Slack that connects into all the platform resources of AWS. Slack then becomes a conversational interface not only into SaaS applications but also into custom apps built on AWS infrastructure, which vastly expands its utility. Add in the multi-organization shared channel fabric that Butterfield alludes to and you can start to see new developers building business applications that use Slack as the user interface for all of their customers. Now that really is intriguing.

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