Group-collaboration software isn't anything new, but in recent years we've seen an explosion of new solutions aiming to redefine how teams work. There's Slack, of course, which has spread across startups and big organizations like wildfire. But even before that, companies relied on things like HipChat, Yammer and plain old IRC. When Microsoft first unveiled its own offering last fall, the not-so-subtly named Teams, it initially seemed like the software giant was just jumping on the latest productivity bandwagon. It also seemed a bit redundant, since Microsoft owns Yammer. But it quickly became clear that Microsoft had some big ideas in store.
Today marks the next major step for Microsoft Teams: It's opening up to all Office 365 commercial organizations, more than 85 million monthly users. It's also packing in several new features, like the ability to schedule meetings without leaving the Teams interface. As it evolves, Teams is looking more and more like the ideal productivity solution from Microsoft, wrapping in elements from other Office 365 apps while also delivering entirely new ways to work together.
On the surface, Microsoft Teams looks like a slight twist on the Slack formula: a row of rooms on the left pane and an fast-scrolling wall of text on the right side. But Teams quickly differentiates itself. Threaded messaging is core to the app's experience, for example, allowing you to quickly browse and jump into conversations without confusing them with later messages. That's something Slack has taken three years to release, and its implementation also feels like an afterthought. And on top of the message window is a row of tabs that points to things like shared files, a team wiki and whatever else you'd like.
As for what's new since we first saw Teams, Microsoft has added features like the ability to continue email conversations by mailing Teams groups and has integrated bots and other app connections. The company says more than 150 software integrations will be headed to Teams soon, including Growbot and Trello. So instead of opening a separate app or browser window to check on your group's Trello list progress, you can simply make it a tab atop a Teams room's chat window.
As a fairly dedicated Slack user, I was surprised by how thoughtfully designed Teams was after using it for a few days. It's easier to follow threaded conversations, since they actually look like threads instead of weird offshoot chats. It's far simpler to start video chats with teammates, and you can even schedule video meetings from within rooms. And given that Teams supports video chats with up to 80 people, it could conceivably end up replacing conference calls for some workers. Even the mere act of creating new channels seems a lot more fluid than on Slack, reflecting the fact that working groups tend to evolve quickly over time. A private chat among a few colleagues could end up becoming a channel to house conversations around a new corporate project, for instance.
On the mobile front, the Teams iOS and Android apps are both clean and well designed. Oddly enough, the Android app is the most advanced version, since it supports video and audio calls. That's something both Windows Phone and iOS will have to wait for.
Microsoft is quick to admit that Teams won't be the perfect solution every time. But the company is positioning Office 365 as a bouquet of options for any group hoping to work together. If you don't need the rich collaboration features of Teams, you can rely on Yammer, Word, Excel and other traditional Office apps. Given that Teams won't cost Office 365 customers anything extra, though, it has a good chance of seeing some quick pickup. One of Slack's biggest criticisms is that it's expensive, so having an app built into a product suite you might already own seems instantly more compelling.