Don't Call Slack a Team Chat App

Slack often gets credit for creating the category of solutions that some of us refer to as "workstream collaboration" or "team chat," though I don't recall hearing either of those terms last week at Slack's annual user conference, Frontiers. Instead, the event had more of a theme around "transactions" and leveraging "Slack as a platform."

Consumer messaging apps -- such as Facebook Messenger, Skype, WeChat, and Hangouts -- have fundamentally altered the way we communicate. There's been several efforts to adapt the messaging-first paradigm into business environments spanning wikis, business social tools, and more recently workstream collaboration apps. Despite some successful products, these tools have not had the transformational impact that we've seen in the consumer space.

The possible exception to this is Slack, which has a loyal following and has been steadily building traction in businesses of all sizes around the globe. For what it's worth: "There's something happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear."

Slack Positioning as Platform

There are now several Slack-esque competitive alternatives, and as a group they are frequently described as workstream collaboration or team chat apps. Each solution generally offers app integration tools built on top of group messaging. These apps all promote communications and collaboration, but in different ways. Solutions from UC providers tend to include real-time services.

The term "team chat" puts emphasis on the messaging part of these solutions, but Slack's strength has largely been its app integration tools. Further, Slack hasn't expressed any recent interest in expanding its real-time services. That gap can be filled via partners or with the basic built-in services Slack has for voice and video communications.

Slack seems to consider its primary competitor to be email, and the status quo of enterprise workflow. Its stated mission is "to make people's working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive," and it seems to consider team chat as rudimentary table stakes. Its focus now appears to be repositioning itself as a platform, rather than as an app -- a platform that provides a more efficient and fluid environment for cloud-connected applications.

The boundary between app and platform is fuzzy. Windows, for example, started as an app that ran on DOS PCs. It provided a platform for new Windows-based apps and later evolved into a standalone operating system.

A more recent example is the Web browser, which also started as an app but has morphed into a platform. Web-enabled apps can work across all kinds of devices that have compatible browsers. Like Microsoft with Windows, Google was also able to evolve its browser application into an operating system (ChromeOS).

Browser apps are kept (mostly) separate in different tabs and windows. Apps can be so deeply integrated into Slack that the separation is disappearing. For example, the recently released Slack Actions enables two-way application functionality from within Slack and can eliminate or reduce the need to leave the Slack interface. Actions also facilitates improved collaboration. For example, two users who use completely different apps from within Slack are now in the same platform and thus can more easily communicate, share, and collaborate with each other.

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Battle of the Platforms

There were several announcements at Frontiers, and they were more aligned with a platform than a team chat app. There were announcements about improved security, encryption, and compliance; plans to make Slack more reliable and scalable; progress making Slack more intuitive; and improvements to increase the speed and responsiveness of its software client. Exhibiting vendors at Frontiers were mostly application vendors that integrate into Slack.

Many of the announcements and road map features shared pertain specifically to the Enterprise Grid solution which was announced about a year and half ago. Enterprise Grid offers additional features for larger, company-wide implementations such as SSO and granular security controls. Enterprise Grid customers include Land Rover, BBC, SAP, Target, and eBay.

The platform perspective helps explain Microsoft's aggressive development of Teams. Microsoft Teams is evolving very quickly, and received significant attention at the past three major Microsoft events: Inspire 2018, Build 2018, and Ignite 2017. (Ignite 2018 occurs later this month.)

If workstream collaboration apps shift from application to platform, then Microsoft clearly intends to be there. Microsoft knows the importance of platforms. It has enjoyed Windows OS as desktop and server platform for decades, but it missed mobile, was late to cloud IaaS, and is no longer the leader in browsers.

Still, many see workstream collaboration as a communications app, alongside email, telephony, and video. We are still very early in the development of these apps, with fewer organizations not using them than are. There's still tremendous confusion about workstream collaboration, and despite all the anti-email bluster, these apps rarely actually replace it.

The question of app or platform may largely depend on one's imagination and intent.

Whatever Slack is doing seems to be working. The revolutionary spirit and energy were palpable at Frontiers. The company continues to grow and just completed another round of funding (Series H) to accelerate its expansion. Slack has momentum and an enviable track record of product and customer growth.

Last May, it reported 8 million daily active users. Slack is also attracting some very large and familiar customers. Slack's largest customers are IBM and Oracle, but the company claims that 58% of its subscribers are in non-technical roles. Also, about half of its subscribers are based outside North America.

Slack is healthy and well, and there are no indications that it will cede its leadership in the category it created.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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