Microsoft goes after Slack with new Teams service

Teams focuses on a threaded conversation approach, rather than the separate channels approach in Slack

Workplace collaboration has become increasingly focused on chat in the past couple of years, and Microsoft is jumping into the new space with both feet, launching a new product it calls Teams.

Teams allows groups within a company to divide into subgroups and then set up individual channels to discuss their work. The chat-based workspace is designed to integrate deeply with the rest of Microsoft's Office 365 productivity suite, including OneDrive and Skype, for file sharing, voice, and video chat. The application is available in beta starting Thursday on the web, Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android.

It's a move by the tech titan to better compete with Slack and HipChat, two high-flying group chat programs that are designed to make people more productive at work by creating communal space for people to discuss what's going on at the office. Microsoft previously held that Skype for Business -- its enterprise communications software that was previously known as Lync -- was the answer for Office 365 users interested in workplace group chat.

threaded conversations in microsoft teams Microsoft

Threaded conversations in Microsoft Teams let users hold multiple conversations in the same space at the same time. 

Microsoft's new product is closer to a set of threaded conversations than a wide-open chatroom -- a key difference between it and Slack. What that means is users can start a conversation about a particular topic, and keep everything about that topic organized in one place. (Threaded comments is a feature Slack has promised for a while, to try and appease its users who need to have multiple conversations at once.)

The Activity tab gives users a bird's eye view of all the different conversations that are going on inside a team. It's designed to work like an inbox, so people can get a quick view of what they need to know.

Microsoft is also bringing the power of its Office document collaboration features to bear on the new service. Whenever a user uploads a document into a channel or direct message, everyone in that channel will be able to view the document live using Office Online. The same thing goes for notes saved in OneNote, too.

Users will also be able to hop on live voice and video calls with other people on a team. This feature is powered by Microsoft's Skype infrastructure, and will allow group calling, screen-sharing, and more. A call will show up as part of a channel and users will be able to jump in and out as necessary.

Teams also allows companies to add tabs to channels that bring content from cloud services like Asana and Zendesk into their chat experience. That means they'll be able to do things like reference project boards and help desk tickets inside the same space where they're discussing all their other work.

In keeping with other modern work chat apps, Microsoft Teams supports the use of bots inside chats and direct messages. To kick things off, Microsoft added two different bots aimed at improving the experience of using its chat product.

T-Bot is a tool for helping people better understand what Teams can do, giving users an interactive, automated help system. In addition to chatting with T-Bot, users can also browse the bot's knowledge base and access it from a series of menus.

WhoBot is a tool for helping users find other people inside a team. It sits inside a team and watches what people are talking about. That means users can ask "who knows about ticket sales?" and the bot will return a list of people who have discussed ticket sales inside Teams.

Microsoft's enterprise chops and massive existing Office 365 user base is going to be one of its biggest assets when it comes to going head to head with the likes of Slack. IDC Vice President Vanessa Thompson said that one of the key benefits of Microsoft's new service is its compliance with standards like HIPAA and the EU Model Clauses.

"[Microsoft is] going to have some early success," she said. "Slack's been growing pretty aggressively, but they're nowhere near what Microsoft did from an Office perspective."

Moor Insights and Strategy Principal Analyst Patrick Moorhead said in an email that he's "very positive on Microsoft Teams. ... If Microsoft can keep up with Slack's connectors and maintain their Office 365 pricing model, Slack could likely be at risk of decreased growth as they no longer have a giant utility lead," Moorhead said.

Microsoft Teams will be free to Office 365 Enterprise customers. The beta will support 70 external connectors and 85 bots. It's available for users in 181 countries, with an interface localized to 18 languages. It's expected to be generally available during the first quarter of next year.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.