Last week at Dreamforce, Slack announced
a new feature called Slack Canvas. It provides a surface where teams can curate, organize, and share information. Canvas makes it easier to leverage information contained within Slack conversations. It can organize files, messages, multimedia content, present data from other systems, and even supports embedded workflows to complete tasks.
Canvas is a significant enhancement, and unlike most new features, it will likely launch next year reasonably robust and mature. That’s because the core technology powering Canvas is not new; it came from Quip, a company founded ten years ago. This is much more than just a new feature. Let’s take a closer look at what’s occurred behind the scenes.
I can’t say I was too optimistic regarding Salesforce acquiring Slack. Salesforce likes to acquire companies but doesn’t always leverage them. For example, Salesforce acquired Quip in 2016, but not much came of it. Quip was an intriguing company, as it was trying to revolutionize cloud-delivered word processing.
It’s not really accurate to describe Quip as a word processor, which was part of the problem. It was a new category that combined multiple office productivity apps. Quip, like Slack, promised to reduce email via a collaborative workspace that combined office productivity with rich integrations. Quip was a company, product, and concept.
Quip wasn’t alone; several startups, including Igloo, Notion, Wrike, and Podio, had some overlapping ideas. However, it’s not easy for a startup to get enterprise users to consider alternatives to Microsoft Office.
Not a bad spot to pause and preview that the Innovation Showcase at Enterprise Connect 2023 will focus on Collaboration Reinvented. Check it out here
Salesforce snatching Quip was potentially interesting, but Quip remains largely unknown and unused, and that potentially changing is the bigger story here.
I felt the acquisition of Slack by Salesforce made sense for Slack. The company was in an existential battle (and losing) with Microsoft Teams. Microsoft had realized the importance of team messaging and went all-in. Teams received considerable attention and resources. It was included in the keynotes at several Microsoft events throughout its early years and even had a testimonial from Satya Nadella. Microsoft was regularly reporting spectacular growth figures for Teams — at least until it passed Slack. At $27.7 billion, the Salesforce offer was a life preserver.
The motivation on the Salesforce side was less clear. Slack would certainly be an upgrade to Salesforce Chatter, but cheaper ways were available to accomplish that. Slack would also contribute to Benioff’s goal of Salesforce reaching $50 billion in revenue by 2026, but so would other acquisitions. Salesforce competes with Microsoft, so perhaps it was “the enemy of your enemy is your friend” thing. Plausible explanations aside, I felt something below the surface was driving this acquisition. That factor appears to be unfinished business.
And this brings us to Bret Taylor. At the time of the acquisition, Benioff was quick to credit his co-CEO Taylor for putting the deal together. Bret Taylor was Slack’s champion at Salesforce and the founder of Quip. While he’s certainly done well at Salesforce, Quip has been neglected. That’s because Salesforce isn’t really a collaboration company; it’s more of a systems-of-record company.
Salesforce likely acquired Quip to better facilitate collaboration, but it was a bridge too far. Quip provides a collaborative free-for-all, not exactly compatible with a system of record orientation. Depending on the need, collaboration can involve communications (video, chat, email, etc.), data (shared content, documents, integrations), and ideation (forums, whiteboards, etc.), but these can also be opposing forces.
Meanwhile, Slack needed a better way to differentiate itself from Microsoft Teams. Slack’s future wasn’t particularly rosy pre-acquisition. Microsoft was replicating every idea that Slack had (sometimes, even reusing the name like with Teams Connect
). Microsoft had a lower cost of sales since Microsoft made it freely available to all paying and non-paying customers. The pandemic was forcing organizations to implement video, which Teams bundled. Slack needed something that Microsoft couldn’t simply copy.
Team chat is a relatively young technology. It provides interactions, but it also has a problem: too much chatter. Its hallmark of persistent data retains everything. For example, a new employee can be given access to a channel and view the conversation history to better understand how things came to be. It may not be easy, but it’s far more effective than an empty email box the new employee also received.
One way to solve this is to post a document to a channel that includes pertinent data. Another option would be a Wiki or similar organizing tool for each channel. The technology exists, but who should do it, who has rights, and what app to use creates too much variability? Slack attempted to address this before when it acquired Spaces
in 2014. That was too soon. Both companies were immature, without sufficient momentum to bridge these ideas.
However, I wasn’t the only one to notice that Quip wasn’t going anywhere at Salesforce. Bret Taylor stated
that in 2020, “Stewart actually called me and said, ‘Would you be willing to divest Quip from Salesforce and sell it to us at Slack?’” That inquiry was likely the impetus for Salesforce buying Slack, and Butterfield inheriting the Quip team.
Of course, Microsoft will replicate Slack Canvas, but this one isn’t so simple. Slack Canvas is the antithesis of Office. It’s one collaborative space that can hold all kinds of data, including interactive elements. For Microsoft, it’s Office, OneDrive, Teams, Dynamics, and Power BI together, but Slack has also integrated Canvas across most of Salesforce. This new Slack Canvas feature has decades of development behind it.
Slack Canvas appears to be what Butterfield and Taylor were attempting to create. Both started their journey with independent startups yet are delivering it together from one of the most influential companies in Silicon Valley.
It’s a big achievement for them, but it also opens a new chapter for team collaboration. Previously, team chat has been about asynchronous work, threaded conversations, discovery, and search. Chat had more emphasis on communication than collaboration. We have seen chat functionality added to docs and meetings, and now, we are going the other way by bringing a collaborative workspace into a channel. In other words, while Teams takes on Slack, Slack now takes on Office.
Slack also addressed the video gap in its product by expanding Huddles. The real-time feature, powered by Amazon Chime, now supports video and multi-person screen sharing in addition to audio conferencing. A Slack Canvas can be used with a Huddle for collaborative, shared note-taking. Slack also announced at Dreamforce that it supports 15 new Salesforce integrations.
Distributed teams are not going away. We have proven that distributed teams can be as productive as in-person teams, but we have to admit there have been some struggles. I understand the cries from execs for employees to return to the office. There are still a few gaps for distributed teams. Online meetings, shared screens, and collaborative docs have contributed significantly, but we need new, additional solutions for different types of online collaboration. Perhaps Slack Canvas is exactly what the world needs.
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.