Disclaimer: A friendly reminder that the following is my opinion and not that of my employer.
In the midst of my recent binge watching I have been subjected to an exceedingly annoying marketing campaign droning on about the wonderfulness of Microsoft Teams during the pandemic. After 1500 viewings, of which a disturbing number were while I was eating comfort food none of the doctors approve of, I have a question that I am desperate to ask. If this thing is so wonderful, why weren’t you using it before our collective imprisonment? Is this a real “game changer” or are these people just suffering from Stockholm syndrome?
I mentioned in my last post on the records management problems with online meetings that none of the technologies we are suddenly dependent upon appeared from nowhere. Many players have been in this space for years. For web meetings we have in no particular order Zoom, Cisco Webex, Verizon Bluejeans, Google Meet, Amazon Chime, Pexip, Microsoft Teams(Skype), RingCentral, Goto Meeting, Zoho Meeting, ClickMeeting, Join.me, Intermedia Anymeeting. There are more but you get the point. These are not new. Also interesting to note that that there is a good deal of white labeling behind the scenes going on here as well. The same core services supplied by a few players but marketed by a dozen others, all competing with themselves. But I digress.
With this many players consolidation and decline of the also rans is inevitable. At least from a mindshare perspective the “winners” (if you can have those in a pandemic) are clearly Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Companies at opposite ends of the corporate cultural spectrum. Zoom as the people’s choice because of its user model, openness, ease of use and flexibility. Teams because of their dominant position with IT procurement.
Leveraging their longstanding connections with corporate IT buying structures, Microsoft has an advantage that no other company has in this space. Companies have not been buying O365(or M365) for Teams in anticipation of the changing face of work. People bought Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Exchange. (yes I know Google – more on that later) They decided to use Microsoft Teams often because it is a path of least resistance from a procurement perspective. Customers willing pay for tools that CREATE the content. Everything else is along for the ride.
The Teams push from Microsoft started well before the pandemic and was not a visionary innovation. The move was in response to competitive disruption. The reason you might want to use Teams is fundamentally different from why Microsoft wants you to use it though. Teams is not just there to help you manage your work. It doesn’t do anything by itself. It is all about capturing your time. Here is what I mean.
Depressing as it may be, the genesis of the vast majority of your work is from Microsoft productivity tools. Knowledge workers write contracts with Word, present sales pitches from PowerPoint, analyze the results with Excel and communicate their decisions using email. Work subconsciously becomes synonymous with the tool and each commands an expanding amount of your attention. For a disturbingly long time, Microsoft has enjoyed a near monopoly on the amount of time workers spent in their tools. Eyes on the screen with a Microsoft logo. This was a heretofore untraceable metric for on premise installs but in the cloud this time is gold. However, three disruptive forces in the market today are shifting this dynamic. Whether deliberate or not, Microsoft Teams sits as the platform to defend their dominance.
While there are other upstarts you might consider, the direct, formidable and mature competitor to Microsoft’s productivity stranglehold is GSuite’s content creation applications which have put a serious dent into the armor of Office. It took a long time to do it but as soon as something approaching feature parity arrived GSuite assumed its place as the defacto choice of the “anything but Microsoft” techno-heritics. The challenge went beyond the tools. The experience was a true cloud suite years ahead of Microsoft. When O365 launched it was a not just about moving (late) into the cloud. Cloud app launching itself was just as much a response to the Google paradigm as where it was running.
Microsoft’s strategy to control where you begin your work is deep in the DNA and goes back to the very arrogance of the “Start” button itself. If you go through them to get to tasks you care about they own you whether or not those tasks are in their tools or not. Google, ever the example of minimalist search experience, “out simplified” Microsoft in the productivity suite. So much so that SharePoint, the portal turned intranet turned ECM turned I don’t know what to call it anymore is losing its clean up position in the Microsoft user experience lineup. The O365 app launcher experience in contrast to Google’s continues to feel like an awkward overlay rather than an integrated experience. Lastly, Google understood better than most that it was email that triggered work and if you make it simple to transition from email to content creation you hold the user. A new strategy needed to be developed to keep people going through the Microsoft gate to get to work every day.
Microsoft is never scared but they are on occasion surprised. They didn’t see Slack coming. In their defense, few people did. Slack is a new collaborative paradigm that evolved from point to point messaging to a rich channel ecosystem of interaction and integration. This really has changed the game. Taking all the things that we misused email for and solving them in an robust collaborative thread collected in self managed categories was brilliant. GSuite threatened O365 with competitive content creation and email but it was Slack that disrupted email directly with a different way of doing business. Rather than the content of work being initiated, reviewed and distributed through email, a Slack message is more efficient, immediate and less bulky. Microsoft needed to counter this growing pattern, as the content of work moved from being written in email to other platforms.
In my last post I described some of the potential records management impact to business caused by the explosion of online meetings . The last few months demonstrate that despite the protestations of many, a very large portion of knowledge workers can work remotely if their leaders and more importantly, their IT organizations let them. Microsoft reported that usage of their Teams product has skyrocketed to seventy-five million daily active users. These are not all new sales. Unlike Zoom, I surmise that a large cohort of the Microsoft users could have been using the product all along. It took being threatened with a contagion or imprisonment to get them to do it.
Up until this point I have been referring to Teams as a single thing. It is not. Microsoft Teams is in fact a thin platform that acts as a collection of apps, one of which by the way is called Teams. Teams in Teams (ugh) is the direct competitor to Slack, not Zoom as you might conclude from the aforementioned commercial that started my rant in the first place. That would be Calls or sometimes just referred to as meetings. Not to be confused with Skype though it was the same thing, sort of but soon it won’t be. Besides Chat, which competes with direct message in Slack, you must not forget the aptly named “Files” which is really OneDrive except when it is SharePoint, unless you are recording a call when it is Microsoft Stream. And don’t forget that a Workspace in Teams is really a group and also SharePoint site. If you thought site sprawl was a problem before – just wait.
Confused? You are not alone. And perhaps this is why it took stay at home orders to make it take off. It is worth noting that online meetings is what everyone is going on about. Workspaces are not as far along as Slack in user experience or integration. Slack was their target for Teams but it is Zoom that is the challenger to what has become the killer app of the lockdown.
What you launch when you click on Teams at the end of the day is a portal. A wrapper. It surfaces apps integrated into the experience that feel more or less organic and a part of the act of working rather than just the launcher that is M365. It should be noted, that even though Teams is a place to integrate apps, Microsoft is notorious for not being open when it suits them. The company has and will continue to close that door and prevent customers from leveraging apps better suited to their needs to maintain their dominance in whatever space they chose.
The evolution of the Teams interface is muddled but they tweak constantly and since I first used it three years ago the experience is vastly improved. The explosion of use will surface blockers and accelerate improvements and unfortunately alternatives are still limited. GSuite will have its proponents but the more interesting thing it watch is how both Slack and Zoom respond. The integrations are already there for these two but Slack’s recent announcement of a shift to Amazon Chime for call experience development moving forward signals that they may be more inclined to evolve their experience into the one window to rule them all that Teams longs to be.
Traditionally Slack’s attitude toward integration, openness and innovation means that are better positioned to move more quickly. Content layer integrations are there but in order to command and retain the market in the long term there are the gaps in two areas that must be addressed. Content creation (editing tools) and the thing they despise most.Email.
A decade ago Microsoft cut the heart out of the ECM market with Sharepoint by offering “good enough” content management. It was one of the fastest products to a billion in revenue in their history. With aggressive expansion of both reach and capability, Microsoft Teams could do the same to Slack. Collaborative channels may be the new content of work but it doesn’t replace tools that create content for consumption beyond the workgroup. For that you need a very close, non-Microsoft editor option. Similarly, distribution outside the team experience has got to be a part of the experience for the foreseeable future.
Times like these drive innovation. The story is not finished. It is a confusing space right now and even though we have early leaders, our global work at home experiment does not appear to be ending soon. Other players will challenge Microsoft Teams. Did I mention Webex Teams? That’s right. Same name with much of the same capability. My personal stack as a long time remote worker is Slack, Zoom, Box and GSuite and is multi-vendor but a compelling open alternative for organizations that look to be nimble.
Microsoft Teams usage is undeniably skyrocketing. I would challenge though that this is not the same as adoption. Adoption happens when people chose to use it when they have other choices. We will not understand if it was Microsoft Teams that changed the game or if the competition simply moved to another stadium and this was the only equipment IT brought along. We also will not understand the real cost of Microsoft Teams operationally until much later. When business returns to the home field we will see how much stays with Teams. Much of it will, if for no other reason than newly formed habits. There are choices and organizations should better understand if their decision to use Teams is a reasoned business choice for the long term or is itself just a habit from years of captivity.