Microsoft Teams is let loose against Slack

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This week, Microsoft announced the official general availability of its new team collaboration tool, Microsoft Teams.

Launched in preview back in November, Microsoft Teams is part of the Office 365 suite alongside applications including Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, OneDrive for Business and Yammer, and will now be automatically provisioned to customers with the following Office 365 plans: Business Essentials, Business Premium, and Enterprise E1, E3, E4 and E5.

Microsoft’s response to Slack

Given that Microsoft already has Exchange/Outlook, SharePoint and Yammer for collaboration, you might wonder why it feels the need to add another tool to its collection. However the Teams launch marks quite a shift for Microsoft in terms of the way it approaches collaboration, and also in the way it views Office 365 as a solution.

The easiest way to explain Microsoft Teams from a pure functionality standpoint is that it is a “Slack-alike”; it provides a chat-based workspace designed to support communication and collaboration within teams, allowing integration with third-party tools and applications, as well as support for bot-based interactions through integration with the Microsoft Bot Framework. However, while there may be little to differentiate the product at this level, it’s Microsoft Teams’ position within Office 365 that really helps it to stand out in the marketplace, through its integration with other apps including SharePoint, OneNote, Skype for Business, and another relative newcomer, Planner.

A more unified Office 365 collaboration experience

Office 365 has been available for more than six years now, but one of the most important criticisms levelled against it has been that it has been little more than a collection of loosely-integrated apps, rather than a single solution. Because most of the technologies were originally created for the on-premise world, they lacked the lightweight feel and the seamless integration that we’ve come to expect in the cloud. However, we have seen that start to change over the last couple of years, particularly through investments in things like the Microsoft Graph and Office 365 Groups, which both aim to connect the dots and take advantage of the richness of the Office 365 environment – making it more than just the sum of its parts. The effects of this have been gradually rippling through the various applications too – for example pulling Yammer more closely into the suite, and the creation of a unified people profile (which is now delivered through Delve).

Despite these advances, collaboration has still felt disconnected within Office 365, without a single, central tool that brings all the different pieces together effectively. This is where I think Microsoft Teams come in. When you create a team within Teams, you are automatically provisioned with:

  • A SharePoint team site which acts as the repository for all your content for the team’s various activities.
  • A OneNote note, to act as a whiteboard or wiki page (although there is a wiki feature in Teams too, which may cause confusion).
  • A Planner plan, for managing team tasks.
  • An Outlook group inbox.
  • An Outlook group calendar.

Admittedly, Yammer also provides these integrations as well, since it’s delivered by the Office 365 Groups service. But Teams goes a step further, providing tight integration with Skype for Business to provide in-context audio, video and meetings capabilities, as well as providing a way for you to communicate with people who don’t yet use Teams.

So far, some of these integrations remain relatively superficial, and don’t go far enough to make up for the fact that they are not native features within the Teams environment. But I do think this is a really interesting strategy for Microsoft, and that we might finally have the missing piece that glues everything else together from an end-user’s perspective.

A new string to Microsoft’s collaboration bow, not a new bow

At the moment, Microsoft insists (publicly at least) that the introduction of Teams does not sound a death knell for any of the other collaboration products within Office 365. Instead, it is working hard to position the products carefully: Teams is for communicating with your team on specific projects; Yammer is for enterprise-level communications and social networking; SharePoint is for content management; OneDrive for Business is for file sharing. However, there remains a lot of overlap between the capabilities of the different tools, and – and I think this is still a major problem – they are still different applications within the suite, and they do feel that way.

For me, the one that still feels most at odds with the bigger picture is Yammer, and while it still has an ongoing roadmap and was declared to be the strategy for social collaboration within Microsoft (replacing the Newsfeed capability within SharePoint), it’s noticeably absent from the Teams story. Teams even has its own activity feed and “following” construct, rather than leveraging Yammer. I hope we’ll get a bit more clarity on how these two will play together as Teams becomes more established in the portfolio.

In the meantime, Microsoft Teams still has plenty of room for improvement, and has a lot of catching up to do with Slack, particularly with regards to the provision of connectors to third-party applications. However, it’s already a very convincing offering, and reportedly already has 50,000 companies using it, with actual usage increasing by 30% each month. By provisioning Teams automatically with Office 365, and making it available in 181 countries and in 19 languages, Microsoft is also ensuring that those numbers will go up very rapidly, and I suspect that Slack will quickly see push-back from customers who are existing Office 365 customers and are questioning whether they should pay for Slack on top.

The battle is on!

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