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Microsoft Teams: Redmond Drops Its PCS Shoe

November 4, 2016 | Telepresence Options


Story and images by Andrew H. Nilssen / Wainhouse Research

On Wednesday November 2, Microsoft announced Microsoft Teams, the company's first real entry into what WR classifies as a "Persistent Collaboration Space" offering - as currently typified by Slack, HipChat, and Cisco Spark. Teams is built on the Office365 platform and thus shares a common employee directory, defined groups, file sharing, toolkits / APIs (including connectivity with Exchange), and compliance with the rest of the O365 suite. Teams is yet-another-application that is included in most O365 subscriptions. A Teams "Preview" edition is available now and includes a Windows client and iOS / Android mobile apps. General availability is slated for Q1 2017.

What does Teams do?

Categorized by Microsoft as a "chat-based workplace," Teams brings together project-organized text chat (each project or topic is a "channel" - how Slack-like), real-time video meetings, desktop sharing, shared files, and optional, integrated services to "help teams get work done." Text chat is persistent with history retained, is synchronized across devices, and is threaded within channels by what are called "conversations." Chat messages can contain rich text, a title (useful to identify threads), "@" mentions of people (can pull them into the conversation), images, notes, files, and gifs / emoji. Any text interaction can be escalated to a video meeting with one click; with meeting taking place within the Teams client itself. Team Meetings can be scheduled within the client, and are populated on the user's Exchange calendar.

The Teams UX is organized with tabs for Activity (events that you're involved in), Chat (1:1 interactions), Teams (group interactions), Meetings (schedule pulled from Exchange), and Files (saved in Teams, OneDrive, and local Downloads folder). Each Team channel has an extendable tab bar across the top that initially contains Conversations, Files, Notes (based on OneNote) - additional tabs can be added to enable Microsoft and third party tools that are pertinent to specific teams and their workflows. Microsoft claims that over 150 partners are supporting Teams with developer previews available today from the likes of Zendesk, Hootsuite, and Asana.


Hands-on Impressions & Gaps

After an hour or so of setting up and using the Teams preview here at WR, I found it was painless to add Teams to our O365 portfolio of applications, install the Windows client, create a channel, and invite other team members. The Preview edition is stable, feels snappy enough, and presents a more-than-critical-mass number of features to deliver a positive first impression and paint a picture of how Teams fits into the O365 suite - especially true if you have never used a competing PCS application.

We found a few oddities. Team meetings do not take place in the familiar SfB client - video and presentation materials appear in the Teams client itself. The Teams client does not work the same way the SfB client does - so there's yet another new meetings client to learn. Although Microsoft promotes "tight integration with Skype", we found that Presence information is not consistent between the Teams and SfB clients - ex: if you're in a meeting in one app, it is not reflected in the other. We also could not initiate a video call from the Teams client to a SfB user. This being said, we're looking at the Preview edition, so perhaps these two solutions will become more interconnected over time.

There are some top-level gaps between Teams and (as an example) Slack, the PCS leader. We do not see a way to invite either a guest or a team member from another organization - Slack's "mechanics" and freemium model (no subscription required) combine to make this easy. There appears to be no integrated search (though perhaps some gymnastics with Delve could make this possible) - Slack's ability to search conversations and files with filtering prove to be very powerful for finding that one piece of information you need right now - even if it is buried in a team member's Dropbox. Power users of Slack will immediately miss "slash commands" which invoke both Slack and third-party commands right in-line while typing a text message. And it will take some time for Microsoft to close the gap on third party applications compared to Slack. But, in all fairness, Teams has threaded messages, which is sort of a biggie, and which has been promised but not yet delivered by Slack.


I'll rattle off my top-of-mind implications for three suppliers and for users:

For Slack - Slack posted a pre-emptive blog just before the Teams announcement. In it, the company made the argument that an effective PCS solution is much more than a spec sheet - that it has to be nuanced to fit with the way people work, be fun to use, and be supported by a company that helps them be successful. I buy Slack's argument ... to a point. The Slack UX is elegant and has features that attract our stereotypical characteristics of Millennials (emoji, gifs, etc.) so that they can't wait to see what is going on at work. Microsoft entering the PCS market is a blessing and a curse: it validates the space in a big way and gives O365 users a free-to-them solution that is deeply integrated into O365. Thus, while many may not want to pay extra for a solution like Slack, others will be exposed to PCS solutions for the first time - and "power users" may emerge that want something more. To the extent that Slack can stay ahead of the curve and be a different company to deal with, there is opportunity. Also of note: PCS solutions are very sticky. Unless price is a big issue, I would not be worried about a mass exodus of Slack users to Teams anytime soon.

For Cisco - Cisco may have just gained its biggest and most formidable competitor to Spark ... though Microsoft Teams is built on the assumption that a company has or wants O365. If O365 is in-house, Teams is a natural. If not, it's a Spark / Cisco platform vs. Teams / O365 showdown. While Spark has integrated telephony today, one has to believe it's on the Teams roadmap. Yes, there are other differentiators, but Teams is a shot across the bow and should be cause for concern at Cisco.

For Microsoft - Great move and a solid roll-out. Finally, a real Microsoft PCS solution (Groups was not) that is in time to be a pre-emptive alternative to Cisco Spark and to check any encroachment by Slack or any number of smaller players. There is time to work out the oddities (which client to use - SfB or Teams?) and fill in the gaps - then work to build a unique offering that may well go in a different direction than Slack by leveraging O365. Please keep Teams nimble, bloat-free, and fun to use.

For Users - If you have not experimented with a PCS solution and your organization uses O365, what are you waiting for? While the PCS style of working may not fit everyone, if someone is involved in multiple teams, projects, or has workflows that can be automated by integrating and messaging with third party apps and services, they should give Teams a try. Or try another PCS solution if O365 is not your thing.

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