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Microsoft Shoots to Perfect 'Art Form of Teams'

It's official. Microsoft is now in the team collaboration game, having formally unveiled its much-anticipated chat-based workspace for Office 365 at a briefing this morning in New York.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introduced Microsoft Teams, calling it digital forum in which "people can come together ... to have casual conversations, work on content, and create work plans" in an integrated, unified experience.

"Just like Outlook brought together email, contacts, [and] calendar [into one experience] that changed how we work, Microsoft Teams will bring together chat, meetings, notes, Office, Planner, Power BI, and a host of other ecosystem-developed extensions and applications to help teams get work done," he said.

Nadella proclaimed teamwork an "art form," and in case he hadn't made Microsoft's stance on the importance of teams clear enough, he reiterated, "We envision Microsoft Teams as a key member of the Office 365 platform to transform the art of teams."

Kirk Koenigsbauer, Office corporate VP at Microsoft, added his perspective, too, before launching into product details. "With Microsoft Teams, we see an opportunity to create a more open, more fluid, more digital environment," he said, suggesting that we think about Microsoft Teams "as a digital transformation of an open office space environment."

Such an environment, Koenigsbauer continued, is "one that offers easy connections and conversations, and helps people build relationships, ... makes work visible, integrated, and accessible across a team, so that everyone can stay in the know, ... and helps build a team culture that's both fun and inclusive, so that everyone has a voice." (And, yes, on that latter point, he does mean to suggest that Teams users can load up their conversations with all the memes, stickers, GIFs, and emojis that they like).

Teams builds on four key promises to support collaborative work, Koenigsbauer said.

Chat -- Microsoft Teams supports persistent and threaded chats, and conversations are visible to the entire team by default, although a private discussion mode is available, too. Microsoft has integrated Skype with Teams, enabling click-to-participate in voice and video conferences. And, as I mentioned above, all that fun stuff that allows for personalities to shine through are supported, as well.

Teamwork Hub -- This is where Office 365 really comes into play, with the Office suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, SharePoint, OneNote, Planner, Power BI, and Delve) all built into Teams so information is at the ready, right within the Teams workspace, to use as needed. Microsoft Graph runs behind the scenes, for the surfacing of information and intelligence within workspaces. And, Teams is built on Office 365 Groups, which means users will be able to "move naturally from one collaboration tool to another, preserve their sense of context, and [easily] share information with others," Koenigsbauer said.

Customizable -- With a nod to the uniqueness of every team, Teams is highly customizable, and Microsoft will be supporting "rich extensibility and open APIs," he said. Using a Tabs convention, Teams members can set up quick access to frequently used documents and cloud services, including those outside the Microsoft realm. Toward that end, Teams includes support for the Microsoft Bot Framework, for third-party integrations.

Trusted Environment -- To satisfy enterprise security and compliance mandates, Teams encrypts data in transit and at rest, and, Koenigsbauer added, "like all our commercial services, we have a transparent operational model with no standing access to customer data." In addition, Teams will support key EU, U.S., and other compliance regulations. And, of course, it's served out of the hyper-scale Azure cloud, automatically provisioned within Office 365 and managed centrally.

Accenture CIO Andrew Wilson, who was one of a trio of IT executives on hand for the unveiling, said he thinks about Teams as a "digital cockpit" for its hundreds of thousands of consultants already working in highly collaborative teams. "Office 365 powers the digital worker, and yet the enterprise needs persistent chat," he said.

"Teams is the digital cockpit at the heart of O365 -- nicely secure, nicely integrated with things teams are already familiar with but now building together persistently in a real-time way," Wilson added. "It's this cockpit that is going to change the team experience."

Enterprises that want to try out Teams can do so in preview mode starting today, as long as they meet eligibility requirements. It is available to Office 365 commercial customers with one of the following plans: Business Essentials, Business Premium, and Enterprise E1, E3, and E5 (as well as to enterprises that bought E4 prior to its retirement," Microsoft stated in an official blog post.

Teams will be ready for general availability in first-quarter 2017, said Koenigsbauer, noting that a preview program is also open for developers and that the company expects to have more than 150 integrations from more than 150 partners as of GA. These include integrations from early partners Asana, Hootsuite, Intercom, and Zendesk.

And, because I can't resist as a lifelong Cubbies fan, I'll share one last bit of perspective from Koenigsbauer: "To win the World Series, you need great pitching, great hitting, great defense, and a great manager. In this same way, Microsoft provides a universal toolkit to help teams achieve more."