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Playing Defense: Microsoft Teams to Protect Office 365 from Slack and Spark

Microsoft last week issued its formal response to Slack and the slew of other apps that have burst onto the team collaboration scene over the past couple years. And not a moment too soon, because I don't think I could stand seeing many more apples-to-oranges Skype vs. Slack and Yammer vs. Slack comparisons.


No Jitter editor Beth Schultz has already written an overview of what Teams is all about, so I won't go into any of the details here. Suffice it to say, if you're looking for an alternative to Slack and Cisco Spark -- a cloud-based collaboration app for small teams that's IT-friendly and has persistent chat, per-project workspaces, document sharing, integrated voice and video, out-of-the-box app integrations, etc. etc. -- Teams should do ya.

While that's pretty much what Teams is, what it's not is a "Slack killer." Let me explain...

Product Category Without a Name
But first, a couple words about marketing and branding... It fascinates me that after years on the market and dozens of apps available there's still no consensus on what to call this kind of software. I've settled on "team collaboration" because... well, why not? The apps help small teams of mainly monitor-gazing knowledge workers collaborate on specific projects. But I'm not married to the term and don't actively promote it over No Jitter blogger Dave Michels' "workstream communications," Tata's "dynamic workspaces," or Cisco's "enterprise messaging." Vive la différence, if you'll pardon my French.

Microsoft calls Teams a "chat-based workspace," a term that also gets at but doesn't quite perfectly describe these apps. I don't think it's good enough to abandon "team collaboration," so I'll keep using that phrase to plunk all these kinds of apps into a single bucket.

Defensive Move
OK, back to my main point -- that Teams in its current form won't kill Slack. I don't say this because Teams is somehow lacking in features and functionality. As far as I can tell -- and it's just from what I've read since I don't have access to the Teams preview yet -- the new Microsoft app compares very favorably with Slack in terms of its messaging, document sharing, communications, and other capabilities. They're not identical, but what two team collab apps are?

So it's not that Teams won't kill Slack because its features are somehow inferior, but because of how Microsoft has decided to sell it. Slack, like so many other team collaboration apps, is sold in a freemium model. You can use the app and get a basic set of features -- two-way calling, 5GB of file storage, 10 app integrations, a cap on the number of messages you can search through -- for free. Pay $8 per user per month and you've got group calling and unlimited storage, integrations and search. Pay $12 and you get still more. But anyone can access it. Anyone can use it. And the app stands on its own, rather than being part of some larger software suite you've got to buy into.

It's a model that most every other team collaboration app developer has followed. Even Cisco -- which now sells Spark in a subscription bundle that also includes WebEx, UC Manager, and a conferencing server based on Acano technology -- lets all and sundry use a free version of Spark if that's what they want. This let Cisco complete head-to-head with Slack since anyone looking for a team collaboration can start using Spark -- with no strings attached to any other Cisco products -- as quickly and easily as they can start using Slack.

Strings are quite firmly attached to Teams, on the other hand. And they lead straight back to Office 365. That is to say, Teams is not available for just anyone to use. It's part of the Office 365 suite, standing alongside Exchange Online, Skype for Business Online, OneDrive for Business, and the various office productivity apps. As such, the target market for Teams begins and ends with Office 365 subscribers.

It's a clearly defensive move on the part of Microsoft. By making Teams available only to Office 365 subscribers, the company is trying to dissuade Office 365 customers from adopting Slack or Spark or any of the others. Of course there's nothing that prevents Office 365 customers from doing so. But why pay for team collaboration from Cisco or Slack or whichever vendor when you can get it free -- and presumably more tightly integrated -- with Office 365? It's a perfectly valid approach, and one that should appeal greatly to current and future Microsoft customers.

But the approach won't let Microsoft take the offensive and compete against Slack and Spark in the larger team collaboration market. Microsoft may be able to ward off the threat of Slack from within its customer base, but it won't be able to displace Slack in companies that aren't already committed to Office 365. And for this reason Teams will never be able to kill Slack, only wound it by slowing its spread within Office 365 shops.

Why So Late?
It's curious to me that it's taken Microsoft this long to introduce Teams. Slack burst onto the scene in late 2013 with an early version of its team collaboration app available for free. Cisco reacted immediately. In December of that year it purchased, a start-up competing head-to-head with Slack and whose technology would form the basis of Spark.

In early 2014 Slack started generating revenue with tiered pricing plans, and its momentum was starting to snowball. Unify reacted immediately. It set developers to work redesigning Project Ansible into a team collaboration app, and a few months later announced Circuit as an enterprise-friendly alternative to Slack.

Granted, it took Cisco and Unify a considerable amount of time after their respective announcements to get working versions of Spark and Circuit ready for actual use. But they were seemingly years ahead of Microsoft in responding to the Slack threat. And this from "hardware vendors" making most of their money from routers, on the one hand, and PBXs, on the other. You'd think that a software developer already having multiple types of corporate messaging apps in its portfolio would have reacted sooner.

But the market for team collaboration apps was and remains in its early stages. For a while it seemed like it might be a fad, so maybe Microsoft thought it would come and go before it had a chance to respond. Or maybe the company had adopted a wait-and-see approach, taking notes at the many go-to-market changes Cisco, Unify, and others needed to make after launching their apps. Maybe it's the fact that Slack has also been taking its own sweet time to launch an enterprise plan that's been "coming soon" for well over a year. Or that a year will have gone by between the time Avaya announced and finally releases Spaces. (I'm told it should be available sometime in early 2017.)

I mean it's not like others seem to be in a huge hurry. So, I suppose, Microsoft isn't overly late to a party that is still trying to figure out what it's all about.