Is Slack a product or a feature? The pros, cons and competition

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko April 11, 2017
Slack wants us to believe it is the future of collaboration. But is it truly a platform for that purpose or a readily replicable feature set?


Niqotin Slack integration

Slack is a darling of the tech cognoscenti, garnering plenty of glowing articles and Twitter comments and a nearly $4 billion valuation from Silicon Valley VCs.

Perhaps it's the addictiveness of a news stream that Facebook has exploited to become the center of most people's online social life or chronic frustration with email overload, but whatever the cause, Slack is billed as the future of work.

The problem is there's no guarantee that Slack will be part of that future since it's hardly the first to use the news feed paradigm and lacks a defensible moat of unique technology that competitors can't easily replicate. Facebook, Microsoft and Google already are doing precisely that. Facebook for example just upped the ante by joining Slack in offering a free version of its Workplace product.

It's easy to conclude that a system with a familiar, conversation-stream UI and social network cues like hashtags and at-mentions is the future of enterprise collaboration since it matches the prevailing style of personal online interactions. However, a recent survey finds that just 4% of employees use tools like Slack to communicate with co-workers.

In one sense we should not be surprised. The survey results are largely a reflection of the glacial pace at which people adopt new collaboration technology as evidenced by the same survey finding that fewer than 10% of workers use cloud storage services like Dropbox or Google Drive to share files with colleagues or external contacts.

To the chagrin of many, email with or without attachments remains the communication method of choice for most workers.

The difficulty of introducing new collaboration tools into the mainstream workplace and its reliance on decades-old tools and communication habits illustrates the problem supposedly disruptive software like Slack has in displacing established products in the workplace. Not only does Slack face the inherent inertia of workplace tradition, but it must displace established productivity software like Office and G Suite which have perfected the embrace-and-extend strategy of evolutionary enhancements using ideas pioneered elsewhere.

Pro-Slack arguments rehash the case for Box, Dropbox

Arguments for Slack's current success and bright future invariably include at least two elements: network effects and social stream addiction. Namely, the more people that adopt Slack, the more inevitable its use becomes; ergo resistance is futile due to network effects. Second is the FOMO factor. As Facebook has ably demonstrated, once people get hooked on a social stream, there's a pernicious psychology of missing something that keeps them constantly rechecking the feed.

This column by a Slack user details the phenomena behind Slack's success and why its enthusiasts see Slack eventually becoming the single source of company information,

#1 Social isolation/pressure: If you don’t follow Slack all the time, other people reference or know stuff on Slack that you don’t know and in which you don’t participate. Within companies it is very important to inform yourself about what’s going on, not only for your job but also for your position within the company and your future ambitions. You start to feel social pressure to follow Slack and post to Slack 24/7.

#2 Addiction: Now you start to follow Slack all the time. It’s addictive, resulting in unconscious stress, because you have the feeling you might miss something. I see colleagues Slack at night, weekends, days off, when their wife is labouring, etc, which basically put Slack on the same level as email, Facebook and Whatsapp.

Then network effects kick in since the more information people put into Slack, the easier it is to find what you're looking for in just one place. We heard similar arguments from cloud file sharing companies years ago. To wit, this profile of Dropbox founder Drew Houston that explains his strategic thinking,

All these may seem like one-offs, but they are part of a broader play to provide users with tools to share, view and collaborate on files — and whatever comes after files — across every type of device.

And that, Houston says, is the crux of the company’s goal: to convince people to host their photos, their work documents — and essentially their lives — on Dropbox and give those people easier ways to connect and collaborate with each other.

In sum, Dropbox wants to be the collaboration platform that businesses build upon. So does Box, as I detailed over 18-months ago when it made a significant shift in strategy to create an ecosystem of Box-compliant content management products. Both Box and Dropbox realize that their rationale for existence in the enterprise market requires that they become an application platform, not just a software service; a PaaS, not SaaS. Slack, with its public API and ample integrations to Google Cloud, Zapier and other services makes the same argument.

The problem is, when people use other cloud-friendly products like Office/O365, G Suite or Adobe Creative Cloud to actually create the content, it's easier to store and share the information from the same service, whether OneDrive, GDrive or CC Assets. While Box and Dropbox popularized and perfected cloud file sharing products, their similar lack of competitive technology barriers has allowed larger vendors of office and design software to clone the functionality, leaving little meaningful difference between products.

Cloning Slack

Facebook and Microsoft are natural candidates to create a conversational collaboration tool for business, so the introduction of Facebook Workplace and Microsoft Teams last fall was predictable.

Each is a work-in-progress with notable limitations, such as an inexplicable inability to add people from outside one's organization to a team, something which Slack has overcome. Such feature gaps won't last long since both Facebook and Microsoft are accomplished fast-followers more than willing to adopt features popularized by others, for example, the many ways Facebook has emulated Snapchat.

Despite its partnership with Google to integrate services like Calendar, Drive and Docs, Slack has reason to worry that the search giant with enterprise collaboration ambitions is horning in on its market. As I recently discussed, Google recently announced several enhancements, notably group chats/discussion rooms and video meetings, to its G Suite product that duplicate several Slack features. With a little work, the seemingly moribund Google+ could be a worthy replacement for Slack's iconic news feed.

Like Dropbox, Evernote and other category-defining products, Slack has the advantage of a clean-sheet design unencumbered by legacy baggage. It also enjoys a startup's focus on a single use case, without conflicting product strategies or business models like Facebook or Google, which are primarily advertising platforms.

Similarly, Microsoft suffers from the classic hammer-nail problem in which Office is the only tool it has and becomes the locus around which all other productivity software revolves.

Unfortunately for Slack, the time-honored IT axiom "Standard is better than better" works to Microsoft's advantage. Despite any aesthetic elegance, Slack faces headwinds convincing large organizations inclined to stick with known products providing good-enough features, rather than introducing yet another service with all the security and governance baggage that implies.

My take

Unlike the consumer market, where the cost of switching software products is minimal, or selling to startups and small business with little legacy software baggage, the enterprise software market is plagued by product inertia and procedural hurdles for new products like Slack. These are compounded when the product itself is easily duplicated, providing little competitive moat.

I've long contended that cloud file sharing is a feature, not a product and that companies like Box and Dropbox can only succeed by becoming application platforms, not standalone services. To its credit, Box has moved into that PaaS space with products that stand up well in the enterprise space.

Slack is following the same path, however it faces an uphill climb when competing against cloud behemoths like Facebook, Google and Microsoft with established platforms, and in the case of Azure and Google Cloud, a full suite of cloud application and infrastructure services.

Although Slack advocates rightly counter that no one has fully nailed the problem of enterprise collaboration and that Slack has created an extensible product that people enjoy using, I'm doubtful it's enough to fundamentally change the enterprise collaboration market.

The primary reason collaboration remains an unsolved problem isn't a lack of tools, but human nature. People resist change that involves ingrained work habits and process flows. It's much harder to crack the sociological component of behavior modification than it is to develop a clever new user interface. Such inertia provides established software vendors with their own competitive moat that Slack will struggle to cross.

Having said that, my erstwhile editor at diginomica informs me he loves Slack for the ability to receive automated business specific notifications that are both informational and actionable. But then he's in a minority of one and a half at a team that is glued to email. Go figure.

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