Slack, Microsoft step up war on work email

SAN FRANCISCO - If you're still trading a constant stream of work emails with colleagues, the folks at Slack and Microsoft have a message for you: Get with the new communication paradigm.

As email has morphed from Internet-age blessing to curse, tech companies have been looking to fill the void with cloud-based platforms that connect workers through archived multi-person dialogs reminiscent of text messages.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield was among the first to nudge teams of office workers into the new approach, one that allows an employee with access to a thread of messages the ability to catch up on work updates without hunting through endless emails.

Since launching in 2014, Slack has raised $540 million at a valuation of nearly $4 billion. It offers a freemium model for small groups and subscriptions for larger teams. And now it's hunting for bigger game: on Tuesday, the company rolled out its anticipated Slack Enterprise Grid, which targets large organizations with between 500 and 500,000 users.

Slack's new big-business venture lands as rival Microsoft Teams, which the company debuted last fall, gets set to roll out to Office365 users in the next two months. Both companies are going after the same targets, but Microsoft's cloud-based Office platform, which has 85 million commercial monthly active users, gives it an existing customer pool that Slack is working to grow.

Part of the lure of Slack Enterprise Grid is a set of new tools that give in-house IT support the ability to roll out intra-office communication among all employees as well as new security protocols that are critical to healthcare and financial services companies.

"Grid isn't news so much for the employee but it is for the people administering it for the employee," Butterfield tells USA TODAY. The new enterprise platform will allow access to employee services such as payroll and 401K programs. "For larger companies who have heard of us but needed more features, this is a milestone that will allow them to give us a try."

Slack Enterprise Grid launches with commitments from IBM and Capital One, which have been using the product for a few months. Slack is also announcing a new partnership with SAP, which is designing a portfolio of bots for Slack for its 354,000 global customers. They include a bot for Concur (travel and expense management) and SuccessFactors (human resources).

For both rivals, the goal is to put all the services corporate workers use in the place they spend a lot of time — in their communication tool.

"With Teams you also get access on the platform to services such as Skype for Business, Share Point, Yammer and Outlook for your traditional email if you need it," says Bryan Goode, general manager Office Collaboration. In the last month 30,000 organizations have actively started using Microsoft Teams.

Although Slack may be the hot new name on the communications block, and Microsoft has its sheer size, expect the number of chat-based work tools to grow fast, says Craig LeClair, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester, who focuses on enterprise collaboration.

"There's been a long progression of tech companies trying to solve for this problem, and Slack really found a niche by nailing the interface for helping small groups communicate," he says. "But it's a confused sea right now because you've got software based solutions, cloud solutions, and millennials who are defining new, asynchronous ways of interacting 24/7."

LeClair says there is room for a range of players, all of whom will try and capitalize on users' inherent familiarity with their current platforms.

"Facebook is coming in with Workplace for enterprise, and Google I'm sure will do something and I don't think it's buying Slack," he says. "Ultimately, the communication part might be the commodity element, while the real differentiator will come when someone adds an artificial intelligence layer on top that adds personal guidance features."

USA TODAY


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