Yesterday, Microsoft took their investments in Yammer and Skype and launched a new product that combined features from both into a product called Microsoft Teams. Like many other group collaboration platforms, Teams is meant to allow multiple people in an organization to chat in a group setting while also reviewing documents and other content. While Teams is innovative in the Microsoft ecosystem, it lags behind other competing products that are already established in the marketplace. SlackHQ and HipChat have been the platforms-of-choice for application development shops for the last few years. SlackHQ, especially, has gained massive market share through it’s free-mium business model. Personally, I think I’m active on about 8 different SlackHQ groups ranging from vendor advocacy groups, technology-focused groups, and even my church has a SlackHQ group for our technical staff.
Microsoft isn’t the only enterprise software/hardware vendor to take aim at this market space. Cisco released Spark back in late 2014, originally Project Squared, with the intent to build a group chat platform to co-exist with their other instant messaging acquisition, Jabber. Spark has made great strides in the last two years. This week, Cisco released the “app store” for Spark (https://depot.ciscospark.com/) showcasing the vast number of third-party integrations available for the platform. Up until now, many third party integrations have been made available through services such as Zapier and IFTTT.com. Having their own depot really opens up further possibilities for enterprise customers to consider using Spark by seeing how well it integrates with the rest of their enterprise. In addition, it offers a place where freelance developers and consultancies can showcase their capabilities to provide such integration points.
This space is becoming increasingly competitive, but each of these solutions have their own strengths and drawbacks. Here are the ones that I’m seeing after having used Slack for more than a year, Cisco Spark for almost 9 months, and just this week kicking the tires on Microsoft Teams. I’ve never used HipChat and I’m open to anyone that wants to leave some comments on where it fits.
- Incredibly mature APIs with a vast number of third-party integrations already available.
- Some standardization around integrations via the use of “/” commands. This goes back to the days of IRC and feels very much like that experience.
- Strong customization around notifications. You can create notifications based on highlighted words in chat, along with real name, username, etc.
- Very strong search capabilities.
- Auto-Invite, or having people simply join an existing Slack group without admin intervention, isn’t directly supportable. There are a number of community supported tools to allow for this, but not exactly straightforward.
- No real federation between Slack groups. If you’re a member of various different groups, it’s best to use a browser that can cache your credentials in order to keep up with all of the groups for which you’re a member.
- No grouping of conversations within a channel. I’m not 100% sure this is a drawback…. MS Teams just does this a bit differently (see below). If you have a handful of members having different conversations in a channel, it can become cumbersome to follow along.
Cisco Spark Benefits
- Strong integration with other Cisco collaboration tools (i.e. WebEx, Unified Communications, Video, etc.). If you use Cisco products in your enterprise for phone and video communications, Cisco Spark is a very easy fit to meet your group chat requirements.
- Seamless external user access. Spark doesn’t work in the same way that Slack works. There are no separate groups (i.e. myslackgroup.slack.com). There are only separate channels. A good analogy if you are familiar with IRC: Each Spark group is like a separate IRC server and each group contains channels. You can’t access a channel on freenode from an EFnet server and, just the same, you can’t access a channel in one Slack group from another Slack group. Spark is like one giant IRC server. Channels can be accessed via just logging into www.ciscospark.com. So if you’re a consultant like me, it’s easy to point an employee of one of your clients to create a Spark user and join a chat room that you’ve created without having to build a separate Slack-type group for such a conversation.
- Building on the previous bullet, Spark does have the concept of Teams. Teams are a grouping users and channels (or “rooms”, per Spark parlance) in order to more easily find people and rooms in your organization.
Cisco Spark Drawbacks
- My biggest pet peeve – you can’t edit a message in Cisco Spark. Once you press enter, you can only go back and delete the previous message. I’m horrible with grammar and spelling (as you can probably tell :)).
- Very little standards for commands to interact with Bots and Integrations. I’ve seen everything from the use of “#” commands, “/” commands, and even just natural language. I feel like the community needs to standardize on something here.
- Lacking good customization for notifications. There’s no “@everyone” moniker, such as in Slack, to call the attention of everyone in a room, nor is there much customization for notifications in a room over just enabling and disabling notifications as a whole.
Microsoft Teams Benefits
- Seamless integrates with Office 365. I can see many a small business using Office 365 adopting this as their platform of choice.
- Has the neat concept of grouping conversations in a channel/room. This works much like Comments in Facebook where you can reply directly to someone’s message. It splits up the conversation so that you can more easily follow along. There is one drawback to this (see below).
- Incredible support for emoji, animated GIFs, and even a Meme Creator! As a guy who spends a lot of time on social media, I love having these things at my disposal.
- A pretty strong set of integrations (or “Connectors”, as Microsoft is building off of the existing set of Office 365 email integration). The list is pretty good for having just launched this week.
- I like the integration with other Office 365 apps. It gives the ability to edit PowerPoint Presentations, Spreadsheets, etc. as a tab within the room/channel. Very neat concept, for sure.
Microsoft Teams Drawbacks
- I haven’t seen any support for external user access. So far, it just looks like you can use this with anyone that has a user account in your Office 365 org. Someone correct me if they know more.
- Notifications are a bit stronger than Cisco Spark, but nowhere near that of Slack.
I’m sure there are other benefits and drawbacks and I’m open to hearing from everyone on what they think. Cheers!