Microsoft ratchets up group chat competition with Teams launch

Don’t expect this to be a one-for-one Slack replacement

Microsoft’s work chat app Teams hit general availability on Tuesday, as part of the company’s push to compete with Slack, HipChat, Google and other players in the group chat market.

Teams is designed to help groups of people collaborate at work by letting them communicate in real time. Users can take part in multiple Teams, which provide space for group conversations in a series of channels.

Each channel can include integrations of third-party developer content, so users can do things like manage Asana tasks, edit OneNote notebooks and view HootSuite social feeds without leaving Teams. In addition, teams can use the app for group audio and video meetings.

Starting Tuesday, Teams will be enabled by default for Office 365’s more than 85 million monthly active users. 50,000 companies have already opted in to trying Teams out during its beta period.

The launch leverages one of Microsoft’s key advantages in the group chat market: the company is able to offer Teams as part of Office 365 for no extra charge, while several of its competitors require an additional subscription.

Despite all those features, users shouldn’t expect Teams to necessarily be a replacement for Slack out of the box. One of the major differences between the two services is Microsoft’s approach to threaded chats. Each top-level comment in Teams spawns its own thread for future conversation with a big “Reply” button on it.

That’s a contrast from Slack’s interface, which was inspired by Internet Relay Chat and only recently gained support for threading. Rather than feature a stream of chat that can occasionally have threads tucked away in a sidebar, Microsoft made them a major part of the app’s interface.

Microsoft’s strategy with Teams isn’t to come out of the gate with a chat application that matches the market incumbents feature for feature, that much is clear. Instead, the software seems targeted at the fleet of existing Office 365 users that don't use a group chat application.

Microsoft doesn’t expect that the chat service will fit the productivity and collaboration needs of every group using Office 365, according to Larry Waldman, the principal program manager for Microsoft Teams.

“We think Teams is a core component of that, we think it’s not the only component of that,” Waldman said.

General availability comes with a handful of new features that weren’t around in Teams when Microsoft launched its public beta last year. For example, users of the Teams Android app can now join their iOS bretheren in making audio and video calls. Microsoft is also bridging the gap between email and live chat with a feature that lets users email a Teams channel.

Waldman said users shouldn’t think of this as the end of the road for Teams’s development. Microsoft still has a lot of features it plans to add, like support for private channels. The features the company launched on Tuesday are meant to serve the broadest set of users possible, and more features are supposed to be coming.

“We’ve tried to find the balance there for what’s going to work for the large majority of organizations and users, and we’re going to continually update and continually learn from that standpoint,” Waldman said.

Slack responded to Microsoft unveiling Teams last year with a full-page ad in the New York Times, welcoming the tech titan to the group chat market. Now that Teams is here for real, we’ll see how that competition plays out.

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