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By Any Other Name Would We Collaborate as Sweet?

There's a new type of business app in town, and it goes by many names, including team collaboration, workstream messaging, and team chat.

To which apps do I refer? A smattering of the solutions in question include: Atlassian HipChat, BroadSoft Team-One, Cisco Spark, Microsoft Teams, RingCentral Office/Glip, Slack, Unify Circuit, and Zang Spaces -- to name a few.

What's most interesting about this potpourri of labels being attached to these solutions is that the vendors themselves don't seem to care about the category's name into which their products get placed. That's somewhat reasonable, as they all believe their solutions to be so unique that they can't be categorized. Even back in the PBX days vendors often defied categorization with differentiated product names such as PABX, CBX, and NBX.

But there's enough commonalities among these new solutions that a category is emerging. Common features include a persistent, messaging-centric interface for one-to-one and group communications; access to directories and content (shared documents and third-party app integration; and rich asynchronous and real-time communications.

Commonalities aside, major differences in both features and vision exist. Some are more team-focused, and some more appropriate for enterprise-wide deployments. For example, several are evolving from a real-time communications and conferencing perspective, while others are coming from a development and customization point of view.

Adding to the complexity is the rapid evolution (iteration) in the space. It's hard to find relevant names that may be as persistent as the messages these apps store. This category is so young that it's still nameless, and it is difficult to predict where it is headed. Consider how "UC" shifted through unified, mobile, conferencing, and extensible phases as the category matured.

It would be terribly convenient if we had a name for this emerging class of applications. Terminology comes before technology, as it is all for naught if we can't understand what we are actually talking about.

Here's a sample of the top categorical terms that I hear, along with a few notes:

Team Collaboration: It's a popular term, and the one used by Enterprise Connect for several sessions on the topic. I tend to avoid this term because I think it is both repetitive and redundant. One definition of "team" is two or more people working toward a goal. One definition of "collaboration" is two or more people working toward a goal. Does this mean team collaboration requires a minimum of four people? Adding to the confusion is many other (sub) application categories claim they facilitate team collaboration such as content sharing services (Box, OneDrive, etc.) and video conferencing.

Workstream Messaging: This is my preferred term, albeit not the most intuitive. One common theme of these apps is that they effectively become a portal to work. Since they contain people, content, and communications capabilities, they can provide access to all work-related activities -- thus the "workstream" designation. "Messaging" adds emphasis to the fact that these apps center on a messaging UI similar to many popular consumer apps such as Facebook and Twitter.

Workstream Collaboration: This name leverages elements from both of the above terms, and this is the one Gartner is favoring after it (thankfully) abandoned "team collaboration." My concern with this one is that "collaboration" means different things to different people. For example, although musicians in a band technically collaborate to make music, the music industry reserves "collaboration" for distinct artists working on a project together. Also, the "collaboration" label feels unnecessary because all communications (including email) imply collaboration.

Team Chat: While I think "workstream messaging" is more accurate, "team chat" gets the job done. When I use this term I rarely need to stop and explain what I mean. "Team chat" is almost as effective as "Slack-like," which is a term I abhor. My only complaint is it feels too simple -- it understates the potential. A variation on "team chat" is "group chat," but "team" feels more constructive, and team interactions are an important component of these solutions.

Persistent Collaboration Space (PCS): This term leverages the fact that these applications all use a space metaphor (such as a "room") to store and organize persistent messages. It's a reasonable term, but it's also broad because virtually all forms of communications are or will be persistent and stored in a container. This includes instant messaging, SMS, email, most social apps, and eventually even spoken voice.

Workstream Communications and Collaboration (WCC): UC analyst Zeus Kerravala and I used this name in a paper we co-authored in 2015. The paper introduced the "workstream" concept above, and merged it with the more established UC&C terminology. Zeus still uses this term, but I find it a bit clumsy.

I tend to alternate between workstream messaging and team chat, but try not to wince when I hear other terms used. Names are important, but the winning category name may not emerge for several more years.

Juliet was onto something when she profoundly messaged: "What's in a Name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Perhaps it is best to simply pick one or two of the names mentioned above and focus instead on identifying why this new class of applications are becoming critical and how they differ in functionality and approach.

Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.

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