Investigating Microsoft Teams

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Whenever I evaluate the latest and greatest products and applications in our industry, I am constantly reminded of the line from Star Wars: "These aren't the droids you're looking for." So many iterations of technology and vendor promises have been a big letdown. These aren't the communications tools I have been looking for, neither for myself nor my clients.

As an independent consultant, I try very hard to keep an open mind at all times. But over time, the occasional bias can sometimes creep in. The key is to be self-aware, realizing this bias exists, and be disciplined enough to not allow it to influence present and future judgements.

For example, I have a preference toward Apple products. I've used iPhones and iPads since the very beginning and converted to Mac about seven years ago. Part of the reason I was drawn to Apple was my frustration with Microsoft. It would be very easy to get sucked into being an Apple fanboy and disregard anything Microsoft does. After all, it seems like you are kind of expected to choose sides, dig in, and defend your position at every opportunity.

Similarly, in the communications technology world, my bias was also driven by the fact that I really didn't like what Microsoft was putting out. I was never overly impressed with LCS/OCS/LYNC/SFB in any of its iterations. It was perhaps the poster child of products, during the beginning of the post-PBX generation, that were trying to compete with the PBX or integrate with the PBX, rather than replace it with a truly modern communications tool.

So when I first started to hear about the Microsoft Teams application, I was not overly excited. This is Microsoft after all. Surely Teams is just a dumbed down pet project or yet another rebranding of LCS/OCS/LYNC/SFB.

For once I am happy to have been wrong.

Like it or not, we work in a Microsoft Office-centric world. You can get by in the business world with a Mac, Gmail, and an iPad, but getting away from Office is almost impossible. As our world becomes increasingly collaborative and teams become more virtual, the ability to collaborate on documents, presentations, and spreadsheets in real-time is becoming essential.

Zeroing in on Document Collaboration

The problem is that most collaboration tools out there really aren't designed for document collaboration. While you can download and upload versions of a document and add comments, the true in-document collaboration experience pioneered by Google and finally implemented by Microsoft doesn't really exist inside a multimedia collaboration tool.

I have been using Cisco Spark for the last year and think that it is maturing into a really great product. It works really well until you start needing to engage in collaborative document editing. While it supports a myriad of file storage options, none lend themselves well to a collaborative editing experience without leaving the app. You can download a document, upload another version, and add comments, but you can't jointly edit documents and spreadsheets in real time.

But what if a collaboration tool WAS built to support document collaboration? What if teams could access and edit Office documents in real-time without leaving the tool? What if it combined the Spark-like collaboration interface with the co-editing features of Google G Suite?

Microsoft's Approach

It seems improbable that Microsoft would ever choose to go down this path. First, they would have to start from scratch, something they don't often do. Second, they would have to commit to a cloud-based app and go against decades of traditional software legacy. Third, they would have to be willing to build a competitor, if not replacement for, several successful products, including Skype for Business, SharePoint, and possibly even Outlook.

If one were to look back at the history of Microsoft, it would be hard to imagine them executing this strategy and developing a promising communication tool for the future. But that is why you have to look beyond biases and preferences and allow for the possibility that something truly great might be on the horizon.

Teams could possibly become the most exciting communications application I have seen in my 25 years in the industry. It brings together team communications like we have all been wanting and adds the ability to collaborate more seamlessly in the apps we use every day. That missing link pushes it ahead of the pack and puts enormous pressure on the competition.

But, and there is a "but" -- there is still a ways to go before I get too excited about it. There are still a few areas that need some improvement.

  • Integrated telephony -- While PSTN telephony is on the roadmap for 2018, it is still a missing piece and needs to be implemented to help round out the application.
  • Expanded licensing -- The current licensing model limits access to Teams. I'd like to see it more widely available and not limited to certain enterprise licenses and Office 365 business accounts. The last thing Microsoft needs to do is limit access to the application. This becomes increasingly important for users that collaborate regularly with users outside their organization where licensing certainty is unknown.
  • Guest experience -- On a related note, Microsoft needs to figure out the very difficult task of a guest experience. It seems like nobody has really nailed this yet. These collaboration tools are great for static teams all working in the same company in the same IT environment. But when you need to invite a guest, things tend to not work very well. Again, this is not unique to Teams. The challenge is more the nature of the beast than anything else -- how do we protect sensitive data but allow for easy external collaborations?

Perhaps the most surprising development is how forward Microsoft has been in declaring Teams to be THE future communications platform going forward from the company. That fact alone gives me hope that we are dealing with a completely different Microsoft than what we are used to. And it provides hope that maybe this is the application we have been looking for.

Learn more about Microsoft's Skype for Business and Teams strategy at Enterprise Connect 2018, March 12 to 15, in Orlando, Fla. Register now using the code NOJITTER to save an additional $200 off the Early Bird Rate or get a free Expo Plus pass.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.

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