Slack killer? Microsoft Teams couldn't care less

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 2, 2016
Collaboration startup Slack made a big deal of Microsoft becoming a competitor but the launch of Microsoft Teams aims at a much bigger market opportunity

Microsoft Teams Screenshot
With a full-page ad on the back page of this morning's New York Times, Slack CEO Stuart Butterfield has stolen lavish attention for his unicorn startup from today's launch of Microsoft Teams. He should savor it — it may be the last time Slack gets this much airtime.

The ad is an expensive investment in reinforcing the narrative that the only reason for launching Microsoft Teams was to steal back market advantage lost to Slack. According to this narrative, Microsoft came close to spending $8 billion to acquire Slack earlier this year, before Microsoft founder Bill Gates vetoed the plan.

While it's true that Slack has achieved remarkable momentum, the ad betrays an attention-seeking insecurity that reveals Slack's vulnerability. A worse fate than having Microsoft as a competitor would be Microsoft not caring. Indifference hurts much more than any form of attack. And the truth is, despite the emphasis in today's launch on features that distinguish it from Slack, Microsoft is indifferent. It really couldn't care less whether Slack thrives or dies. It has bigger fish to fry — here are five reasons why.

1. The Office user base is so much bigger

Microsoft's primary concern has to be retaining the loyalty of its Office user base. The New York Times has the numbers, quoting Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last week (so much for loyalty to advertisers):

My job #1 is to make sure that the 85 million users I have on Office 365, we go meet their needs and keep growing that base. This is not to take away any success anyone else has. We’ve always had lots of tools out here that have competed and also coexisted.

That 86 million is the number of active monthly business users. In comparison, Slack has just four million active daily users, of whom only 1.25 million are paying $6.67 or more per month for the software, reports the NYT.

What matters to Microsoft is not how many people are using Slack, but how many people remain loyal to Office. Teams helps retain their loyalty. It's as simple as that.

2. Slack is just one of many competitors

The Silicon Valley-centric, tech media narrative is that Slack is Microsoft's primary competitor in the teamwork space, but that's a gross over-simplification. Team collaboration is a huge, fragmented market with many players and several rising stars, of which Slack is just the trendiest newcomer. Atlassian is an equally strong rising star, while there are many other heavyweight players, including Salesforce Chatter (recently supplemented with Quip, an Office rival), SAP Jam, Dropbox, Box, and Asana (an early Microsoft Teams partner). Beyond these well-known names there are literally hundreds of lesser-known players, each with their own fanbase.

While the crowd may have interpreted Microsoft's launch as gunning for Slack, Microsoft understands very well that it needs to win market share against all of these competitors — and most of its messages today on security, Office integration and ecosystem will have resonated against any of its competitors, not merely Slack.

3. Microsoft Teams has way more features

The entire Microsoft product portfolio contributes a lot more functionality into Teams than any individual competitor can offer. It brings in the ability to launch voice and video meetings from within Teams, as well as work with Office documents. It includes Office 365's identity management and groups profiling, and draws on Microsoft services such as Exchange connectors, the Bot Framework, and the full panoply of encryption and data protection of the Microsoft Cloud.

Beyond all of that, Teams comes with the chat threading that Slack has promised but not yet delivered, and launches with a cute set of emojis, GIFs, custom stickers and memes to jumpstart engagement.

4. Team collaboration must embrace messaging too

One thing that Butterfield underestimated in his pre-emptive critique of Teams was Microsoft's embrace of third-party services. While the 150 partners that Microsoft expects to be on board in time for general availability in early 2017 is not as impressive as Slack's library of 750 partner apps, it's a decent first showing.

Integration to other forms of collaboration is an essential attribute, as not everyone wants or is able to interact in a rich web application. In email comments, Stacey Epstein, CEO of messaging platform Zinc (formerly CoTap) made the case for simpler collaboration channels:

80% of the workforce doesn’t have a desk. They don’t use Powerpoint, they don’t need integration with Jira, and they aren’t collaborating with other people on computers all day.

But they do benefit greatly from messaging, and they need a way to communicate with other deskless workers. They need a secure, enterprise version of their favorite text messaging app, not a more bells and whistles on an app made for desktop workers.

While some workers may find it productive to have their heads buried in a chat channel all day, others just need information and workflow delivered to them as simple messages and notifications that they can act on with minimum fuss.

5. It's not about technology, it's about adoption

The feature battle between enterprise collaboration vendors masks a more important challenge that I discussed earlier today when I posed the question, Did Atlassian just crack the code on digital teamwork?:

There’s a tendency to implement the technology and then hope that people will just start using it without any further guidance.

The trouble with that approach is that tools in themselves have no value if the people don’t know how to make use of them.

Microsoft has an engineering bent which means it has this tendency to put tools out there and leave people to work out how to make use of them. While that may work well with software development tools, databases and spreadsheets, it's not such a good approach when it comes to completely new platforms for digital collaboration. I was impressed by Atlassian's investment in developing tools that help its customers understand how to make their teams work more efficiently.

While Slack has been very good at achieving adoption, we've noted some ambivalence whether the platform actually delivers results. Part of its success seems to be down to it being an addictive experience, rather than because it delivers valuable outcomes.

And that's where the rubber meets the road. Fads may come and go, but it's only when tools deliver results that they become an enduring part of the enterprise fabric. The likes of Slack, Atlassian's product family and Microsoft Team, along with hundreds of other collaboration platforms out there, are all offering various tools that may or may not deliver the goods.

Time will tell which of them are going to endure, but the proof of the pudding is not how popular they are but what concrete value they can deliver. We'll look forward to reporting on the enterprise use cases that demonstrate that proven value.

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