Slack and Apple Relive the 90s

Slack is accusing Microsoft of familiar sounding anti-competitive tactics, but this time its around their Chat/File-sharing tool called Teams. I haven’t been able to use Teams at all myself but its clear to me that Microsoft has a couple of very specific targets with this new product.

Microsoft has always been “the enterprise IT department” that most mid to large size companies rely on to give their IT staff something to do all day. In the past this was centered around Email and Calendar and now its about Video calls and Live Chat. So really no surprise that Microsoft wasn’t going to just give all that ground up to Slack and Zoom without a fight.

So many companies tried to break into this space and failed miserably. The biggest one that I’m familiar with is “Chatter” at Salesforce. Chatter was basically the same ideas as “yammer” which was really like a “message board” for internal companies. It connected to all your data and let folks have arbitrary discussions in groups or add threaded discussions to any bit of data in your database. The idea always seemed very powerful to me and I would push all of my non-profit clients to make better use of chatter. Just about any problem they were trying to solve I reached for a chatter based solution first. And none of it ever worked. Either it wasn’t quite flexible enough for the use case I had in mind, or it was perfect but folks weren’t using the system often enough to have any real conversations in it.

The thing that was missing from Chatter and other systems like it, including share point, was it didnt support real time chat. There are lots of folks who will talk endlessly about how the real time nature of chat clients like chat and teams are destroying “work” but the truth is it needed to be real time for real people to really use it to do their jobs. The real time nature of slack actually made it a lot easier for folks to understand.

Similar to mobile devices in places like India, corporate america largely leapfrogged from email over “internal message boards” right to chat. Slack and Zoom both got good traction and made a huge dent in the market, but in the end I expect Microsoft will come back and take back larger segment of this market than anyone expects. Most of corporate America only recently moved most of their work to email in the last 10 years, at least 10 years after most people had a personal email address. Similarly I expect this transition to be delayed about 10 years as well. If Slack launched officially in 2013 and started to really grow in 2015 I expect we’ll see most “work” being done over chat apps by 2025.

This brings us back to Microsoft. Slack and Zoom showed them which way to go and now Microsoft will use its still established and dominate position with email to steamroll them both on the way to the finish line. Microsoft is “bundling” teams in for free for any company who already has Email from Microsoft will get teams “for free”. Obviously its not really for free since they are paying so much for email but why would a high level executive at a big company even consider paying for slack when teams is already rolled out to everyone and is free. That just makes the CTO look good without having to lift a finger, win-win.

The real question is Microsoft actually innovating with Teams and making a better product or are the only going to win because of this “bundling” move. If its just the bundling and customers would be better off using Slack and Zoom then regulators should be paying attention and should penalize Microsoft for holding back the market. That’s exactly why those kinds of rules exist.

But from what I understand from Ben and others who use it is that there are some real benefits to Teams over slack and Zoom. For one having all those functions in the same app makes a huge difference when it comes to adoption. If they have to open teams when the get invited to a conference call thats going to be way more likely to see the chat features right next to it. Similarly if you have to come to teams to find your files you’re bound to see the chat eventually.

This is similar to what Salesforce was trying to do with Chatter and failed. I think the biggest difference with Microsoft and Teams here is a couple of points.

I’ve never seen a company where all the staff use Salesforce everyday, and if they aren’t using it everyday the benefit of having something new promoted along side it is not only damaged, it actually turns into a liability. If its something you use everyday that means even the laggiest of laggards in your company would have figured it out by now. This familiarity helps us feel more comfortable, relaxed and maybe even happy while using it.

While some of us find using new things exciting, most people just think of it as work. Sure we’re giving them extra work, but its on the promise that this is going to save them so much time in the long run. Problem is it’s a promise they heard before with all this Salesforce B.S. and they still hate that fucking thing. So when most staff open up Salesforce they are annoyed just but the idea of it. They just want to get in and out of there as quickly as possible. That changes from something that feels like a Instagram ad, light airy and even fun, to something that feels like and Ad for work, AT WORK. More more more work work work work for the same same same or even less less money! And so chatter didn’t work.

Teams on the other hand is built its video call platform, thats built into its calendar program thats built into its email program. Every single white collar employee at every single company on earth knows how to use email and calendar tools. It’s like riding a bike for a lot of us, we do it without even thinking about it. It’s our corporate sponsored happy place. So when the pandemic hit everyone everywhere dove head first into video conference calling. Covid-19 truly sped up adoption by at least 4 years. And by the time all of this over video calls will feel like a natural extension of your calendar which was a natural extension of your email. The technology grew organically the way your needs have always grown. So now video calls are your happy place and what do you see every time you finish a video call, a list of chats of your colleagues continuing the conversation you just had on the video cal. How cool is that!

It’s great!, its easy to understand and puts the tool in front of the user right when they need to use it. That’s a truly amazing part of what Microsoft has done here. They really are the company that got technology into the hands of most of the world (at least before android but I’ll save that for another article) they brought email, word processing and even spreadsheets to a mass adoption that truly may not have been possible without them. And all signs seem to point to the idea that they got the timing, strategy and technology exactly right to fully take advantage of the wave Microsoft has been admiring for a few years now. It’s here faster than they expected thanks to COVID-19 so its going to be hard for Microsofts technology to catch up with their ideas. That would be the only way I could see Microsoft drop this ball is if the technology feels rushed, buggy and becomes frustrating to use.

So that brings us all the way back to our initial question. Are users better off in a world where Microsoft is dominate again or should regulators cut off Microsoft’s left arm and let Microsoft, zoom and slack fight it out? Would Microsoft still stand a chance without their left arm or would they just retreat back to email and spreadsheets? If the anti-trusters get what they want and Microsoft loses the war to slack do we really trust Slack to lead us to our happy place?

Slack bought a great screen sharing tool called ScreenHero and we all got excited when it was added into slack. But then it didnt have a way to scheduled a call just start one in real time like a phone call, makes sense because Slack is a “real time chat company” they think “real time is the key to their success so why not keep betting on real time”. Who cares about scheduling at meeting, just slack them and do the meeting now. What a huge bummer. Sure there are calls that naturally come out a slack conversation thats getting a little out of hand, but there also still is a need to respect each other’s time and scheduling things in advance where ever possible. For trailblazers like us, Zoom became the place to do that, it was annoying but humans love being with humans so they quickly became the place where most remote work was being done. What that means is that Slack has become a dumping ground for all the conversations that weren’t important enough for us to bother scheduling a meeting about. Have you looked back into your slack channels in a while? It’s ugly back there. Slack talks about itself as this centralized hub, and everyone knows to go there first if they have questions and thats true when it only when it comes to real time. You can ask anyone and there’s likely more than a handful of fellow employees waiting for someone to say something interested so they can reply or a question they can be helpful with. But when it comes to search and the archives of all that data, which is supposed to be slacks special sauce its a mess. I dont have data to back this up but I have worked with slack basically since day one and I’ve never seen anyone’s slack that looks like their screenshots. It’s always a hot mess of incredibly boring and ill relevant chit chat. All the real work was done in the meeting and you missed that meeting so you are fucked.

But if the “real work” is happening in meeting and in documents than you need to get those things into your platform if you ever want to be a hub. Live chat is a fun party trick but we need some meat on those bones. Slack to their credit has really pushed for robust integrations with their platforms. I was really excited their interactive elements, they really saw the value of getting a rich UI for these integrations built into that app. But they still did it exactly the wrong way. The right way would have been to let third party add tabs to channels, so they could build functionalty that would treat chat like a peer, but of course thats not what Slack did. It’s a real time company right, so they built all these fancy buttons and forms INTO THE chat messages. So they scroll scroll away and there’s no centralized place to access them. Slack’s most recently work with shortcuts is really promising but its clear they aren’t going let anything they do take the focus away from the cash cow, chat.

But Microsoft never put chat on this pedestal, microsoft is focused on the jobs to be done first and foremost. And I see a future where Microsoft’s more integrated approach wins the day.

There are some dark horses in this race tho: Google and Basecamp. Neither one gets the attention they deserve but for completely different reasons. Google has decent foothold into companies at the smaller end but also including some really great recent successes including convincing the NYC school system to switch from Zoom in the middle of a global pandemic. They also have all the technology they need today including video calls with integrated calendar with integrated email with integrated chat rooms with intergrated documents and file sharing. For companies that use Google’s email services like we do at Happy Cog, all thats really missing is chat rooms. If the recent leaks are right about Googles Recent plans to integrate all the tools more is true than Googles offering is going ot have everything teams does and then some. Like Microsoft there are many who would argue that this is few years too late but no one would argue who they are gunning for with these moves.

Basecamp is also on my list to watch here not because I think they stand a chance in hell against the likes of Google and Microsoft but I dont think thats what they are going for. Basecamp isnt about the latest and greatest technology either. Basecamp is about using a small team of dedicated employees to build the best fucking mousetrap you have ever seen. Sure its not as shinny looking as some of those other new fangled traps, but if you use it it actually does what it says on the tin much better than the alternatives at least for some people. Basecamp is building the concept cars and testing their ideas with thousands of customers to see what works. Anyone at these bigger companies would be foolish to not be paying attention to them.

So TLDR: I predict Microsoft wins the chat and video conference wars and Google becomes the Mac of the corporate market with a small but meaningful size of the market. Basecamp or any of the other smaller players like Asana or Dropbox might stick around for a while if they dont try and fly to close to the son but will be unlikely to make a meaningful google sized dent in the market

Either way will be fun to watch it all play out over the coming months.