Team Collaboration Apps: What's New and Why
Here's a big-picture look at how this dynamic space is taking shape.
In the recent update to my team collaboration slideshow, I provided profiles on several apps and how they have changed over the past year or so. It's a very dynamic space right now, with feature sets being revamped, pricing plans rejiggered, corporate strategies and target markets revised, and entire companies re ... er, I can't think of any more "re" words ... with entire companies being bought and sold.
In that slideshow, I put all the developers under the microscope to see what they've been doing with each of their apps. Now let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
- With a number of the developers introducing new pricing schemes, are team collaboration apps becoming more or less expensive?
- With enterprise plans becoming more common, are team collaboration apps still a prime example of shadow IT or have they become more corporate?
- With so much M&A activity lately, who is getting into the team collaboration space and why?
Let's dive in, starting with the topic of support for real-time communications.
Team collaboration apps are all over the place when it comes to real-time communications. Developers have essentially taken three different paths toward integrating real-time comms into their services:
- Develop internally. Circuit and Spark are classic examples of this. Unify and Cisco, respectively, have brought their expertise in voice and video conferencing to bear on their team collaboration offerings, not only baking voice and video directly into the software, but also integrating with business comms systems (Circuit) or Web conferencing services (Spark). Moxtra added native video chat to its app earlier this year. Interactive Intelligence offers a hosted PBX version of PureCloud Collaborate. And as they integrate the LiveMeetings and Glip apps they acquired into their portfolios, Fuze and RingCentral, respectively, are moving to this model as well.
- Partner. Twilio is a go-to partner for developers that want to add voice calling to their team collaboration apps. Twilio powers Redbooth's curious callback capability, as well as voice calling in Moxtra and LiveMeetings, at least until Fuze replaces it in the latter.
- Acquire. In some cases, app developers have acquired start-ups whose technology will add voice and video communications otherwise lacking in an app designed for text-centric interactions. This is what's behind Slack's acquisition of Screenhero, as well as HipChat (or rather Atlassian) buying Blue Jimp.
Speaking of corporate IT buyers, that wasn't initially the target market for team collaborations apps. But it sure is now.
When Slack and the rest first started taking off, they had caught on at the individual, not company, level. I'd sign up for one for free, tell colleagues I work with regularly to sign up too, we'd get hooked, we'd need more storage, more integrated apps, more whatever, and -- presto! -- we're now paying customers. Then others in our company would hear how great the app is and would sign up too. The developer is happy because its app just went viral in my company. I'm happy because I've got something better than email to manage projects.
But IT isn't happy because my team collaboration app does not meet security and compliance policies, isn't supported well, and maybe exists alongside other collaboration apps for which my company has paid. My company's bean counters probably aren't happy either, since my colleagues and I are most likely putting the $5/month subscriptions on our expense accounts and, now that everyone's using the app, the costs are starting to add up.
Enter enterprise plans. Not all team collaboration apps have one -- and those that do sometimes are called a "business" or "pro" plan. But they've become increasingly popular in the past year, with Wimi and Flowdock each introducing one and Slack having one in the works. Enterprise plans vary from developer to developer, but usually involve things like directory integration, Outlook integration, single sign-on, service-level agreements, data backup, some kind of premium support, and/or discounted pricing for large numbers of users.
Desktop Apps and Private Cloud
A private cloud option is another sign that team collaboration apps are appealing more to enterprises. Pretty much all of these apps are delivered in a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model reminiscent of Salesforce.com, Five9, Google Apps, and Skype for Business Online. As such, they are Web apps that end users interact with via their browsers. This makes adoption super easy as there's no messy server or desktop software to install and maintain.
However, not all enterprises are amenable to Web apps. They want more control over the software, to host it in their own data centers, and perhaps customize it a bit. And end users often want access to collaboration apps when they're offline. They want to review chat boards and task lists on long flights or in other situations where (heaven help us!) WiFi isn't available.
This is why Redbooth, HipChat, and Wimi each recently added private cloud options as alternatives to their hosted models. And it's why Slack, Spark, and Flowdock have delivered Windows clients for their respective apps.
Don't look for much consensus on pricing for team collaboration apps. Plans tend to start with a free one... except when they don't. (Redbooth, OpenTouch TeamShare from Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Bitrix, and Circuit don't have free options, though Circuit does have a free trial.) Pricing is usually on a per user/per month basis ... except when it's not. (Bitrix doesn't charge per user.) There are often two paid plans... except when there's not. (HipChat, Circuit, and OpenTouch TeamShare have just one; Wimi has three.)
And per-user pricing can range anywhere from $2 (HipChat) or $3 (Flowdock) to $12 (OpenTouch TeamShare) and up to $25 (Spark) per month. Usually there's a reason that cheap plans are cheap and expensive ones are expensive. The latter typically have native voice and video, with the top-end Spark plan including a license to WebEx.
The team collaboration space has been a veritable hotbed of M&A activity. As you can see from the list below, these usually take two forms. In the first category, a team collaboration app developer buys a start-up to bolster its previously limited feature set:
- Atlassian (HipChat's parent company) acquired Blue Jimp, a developer of open source video chat software that it will bake into HipChat.
- Slack acquired Screenhero, a start-up whose screen sharing and voice chat functionality will bring some real-time communications into a team collaboration app that doesn't currently support it natively. Screenhero no longer exists as a separate app.
And in the second category, a service provider buys a team collaboration app developer to add a team collab app to its portfolio:
- LiveMinutes is now part of Fuze, a provider of cloud-based video conferencing services looking to broaden its portfolio with a team collaboration app. LiveMinutes will become part of Fuze, and eventually cease to exist as a separate app.
- Glip is now part of RingCentral, a provider of cloud-based telephony services looking to broaden its portfolio with a team collaboration app. Glip will become a team collaboration option for RingCentral customers, as well as exist separately for customers only looking for a team collaboration app.
- We can also group Cisco's earlier purchase of Collaborate.com into this category, Cisco being a provider of Web conferencing services and Spark (which is based on the Collaborate.com technology) being closely aligned to WebEx.
- And there's Atlassian's earlier acquisition of HipChat, though in this case it's a software developer, not a service provider, doing the acquiring. But the motivation is the same: Add a team collab app to the Atlassian portfolio.
The only acquisition I know of that doesn't neatly fit is HipChat taking over Hall. This put a direct competitor out of business and resulted in some real industry consolidation absent from the other M&A activity.
So what can we take away from all this? When it comes to integration, companies need to decide if team collab apps will be islands unto themselves, allowing end users to set up voice and video calls only with each other. Alternatively they can share a directory with Exchange or a PBX, and let users click to call from their desk phones, or in some cases double as the sole comms platforms that let users dial out to the PSTN. Each of these is possible with different team collaborations apps today, so IT buyers have a decision to make.
As for pricing, small teams can shop around pretty easily, switching from app to app until they find the paid plan that works best for them. They might lose data when moving off an app, but subscribers are usually not committed for a full year. IT departments looking to deploy a team collaboration app companywide, on the other hand, will want to carefully compare what each provider includes in its various plans, and what's on the roadmap for each plan. Once deployed to large numbers of users in multiple departments, switching everyone from app to another will be difficult.
And finally expect enterprise plans to be more common going forward. It's a result of team collab start-ups getting bought by companies that cater to business buyers rather than small teams. And it's a sign that some of the app developers have achieved the viral adoption for which they were shooting.