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Microsoft Teams work tool another sign that chat is where it's at

The Microsoft Teams versus Slack news speaks to a bigger story about the nature of work. Also in Searchlight: CenturyLink's $34 billion deal; Google rejects EU charges.

There was high drama this week in the sleepy, old technology space formerly known as Enterprise 2.0. Microsoft launched Microsoft Teams, its new chat-based productivity tool, at an event in New York. At the launch, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella invoked symphony orchestras and the game of cricket as examples of the emergent possibilities of teamwork. He emphasized the value of a common framework, such as a musical score for the orchestra or a game plan for a sports team for galvanizing and focusing the creativity of individuals for the common good.

On the same day, Slack Technologies, whose eponymous online chat app has taken work teams by storm, snidely "congratulated" the software giant on its entry to the market. A snarky full-page ad in The New York Times warned its competitor: "You'll need to take a radically different approach to supporting and partnering with customers to help them adjust to new and better ways of working."

CIOs had better believe enterprise collaboration is changing, say experts who follow the field.

The launch of Microsoft Teams -- though widely framed as a vendor battle between the behemoth and the startup, thanks to Slack's clever marketing -- underscores something larger, they said: a fundamental change in the sped-up, real-time nature of work, and, second, a recognition by the likes of Microsoft, IBMCisco and a crowded field of startups that the medium we increasingly use in our private lives to communicate and make decisions -- all manner of digital chat -- also belongs at work.  

"Work is becoming less routine; it's more dynamic, more situational; and it has changed the way teams work," said Mike Gotta, research vice president covering collaboration and social software at Gartner. "In the old way of working, which was very document-centric, we'd post a bunch of files into a team site and go there and have a discussion." Eventually, networking tools such as Yammer and Jive added a social component.

"Now, we're in this third style of team interactions -- from documents to social networking to now conversation," Gotta said. What makes the conversation model, as he calls it, useful in the enterprise is the extent to which it can plug into all the other tools and services we need to do our jobs. And that is where the debate got heated this week, as the tech community dissected what the Microsoft Teams group chat platform brings to enterprise collaboration and how it measures up against Slack.

An abundance of choices or legacy mess?

Microsoft's on-demand webcast offers a detailed view of what's on tap, and certainly the web is replete with detailed reviews of the product. But the consensus is that Microsoft Teams is feature-rich and serves as a hub for Microsoft's many other productivity and communications applications -- from Skype and Yammer to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, SharePoint, OneNote and Power BI. Teams users can chat in groups or one-on-one, personalize their conversation with emoji, share files, connect through Skype video calls and interact with bots. (T-Bot answers questions about how to do stuff in Teams, and Who-Bot brings up information about team members, according to the company.)

Whether the hub approach is good or bad is a matter of opinion. In his remarks at the launch, Nadella not surprisingly touted Teams' constellation of products as an advantage. No two work teams are the same or work in the same way, he pointed out. Nadella noted that he uses email to communicate internally and externally, Outlook Groups to distribute information, Yammer as the company bulletin board and Skype for real-time communication. Teams' "universal toolkit" offers choices.

Rather than a plus, Alan Lepofsky, an analyst at Constellation Research, sees the abundance of choice as symptomatic of a legacy software company's dilemma. In a blog post following the event, Lepofsky argued that what customers want is fewer communication choices and the same look and feel across those products. 

"Microsoft is selling the portfolio as an advantage, and I think it meets the story they have to tell, because that is what their product line is. I think if you started with a clean slate of paper, nobody would design a whole bunch of ways of doing the same thing," Lepofsky told me.

On the face of it, Microsoft Teams looks like a no-brainer for enterprises, or at least a no-brainer for companies that use Office 365. When the service is offered for general release next year, it will be included in all versions of Office 365 at no extra charge.

But CIOs would do well to take Nadella's words to heart: No two teams are alike.

Both Lepofsky and Gotta agree that Teams' success will rest on the degree to which the platform can be customized to fit the needs of work groups.

"Enterprise collaboration is an oxymoron," Gotta said. "We don't have thousands of people collaborating, we are collaborating in teams. If Teams doesn't fit the needs of a team, but Slack or HipChat does, then you're going to get pushback as a CIO because you're giving people a plateful when they want something very specific."

CIO news roundup for week of Oct. 31

Microsoft Teams wasn't the only big news. Here's what else was happening in the world of technology this week.

CenturyLink to acquire Level 3 Communications. Monroe, La.-based telecom company CenturyLink has agreed to acquire Level 3 Communications in a cash and stock transaction valued at approximately $34 billion, including the assumption of debt, CenturyLink announced Monday. And in a move designed to ease the purchase of Level 3, CenturyLink announced today that it is selling its data centers and colocation business to a consortium led by BC Partners for $2.3 billion; money from the sale will be used to fund the deal with Level 3. "The digital economy relies on broadband connectivity, and together with Level 3 we will have one of the most robust fiber network and high-speed data services companies in the world," CenturyLink president and CEO Glen Post said in a statement.

Although Level 3 representatives predicted the combined company will meet the evolving and global needs of enterprise customers, experts predict the deal would have little impact on CenturyLink's bid to become a bigger cloud contender, Fortune reported. The deal is subject to regulatory approvals and is expected to close by the end of the third quarter in 2017.

AWS continues to dominate the public cloud market. Amazon has a 45% share of the public infrastructure as a service (IaaS) worldwide market and is over twice the size of the next three public IaaS providers combined, according to third quarter data released by Synergy Research Group. "Scale is the name of the game ... Amazon, Microsoft and Google continue to invest huge amounts in their hyperscale data center infrastructure, and all three have recently expanded their data center footprints and also announced plans to open up more geographic regions in the coming months," said John Dinsdale, chief analyst and research director at Synergy Research, in a statement. Amazon also leads the public platform-as-a-service (PaaS) market, followed by Salesforce, Microsoft and IBM. 

Google spurns EU charges. On Thursday, Google formally rejected the European Commission's antitrust charges that accused the search giant of stifling both consumer choice and competition by abusing its prominent market position in online shopping and advertising services. "In recent years, we've improved the format of our ads to include more informative displays ... showing more useful ads benefits us, our advertisers, and most of all, you, our users," Kent Walker, Google senior vice president and general counsel wrote in a blog post. Walker added that the charges against Google's online shopping search service failed "to take into account the competitive significance of companies like Amazon and the broader dynamics of online shopping."

Adobe's AI-powered Sensei. The San Jose, Calif.-based software company unveiled Adobe Sensei at its annual MAX 2016 creativity conference Wednesday. Sensei uses machine learning, artificial intelligence and deep learning for image matching, and will enable users to understand the "sentiment" of documents, according to company representatives. "Adobe Sensei is a framework and set of intelligent services built into the Adobe Cloud Platform that leverages Adobe's massive volume of content and data assets to enable customers to work faster and smarter," the company said in a statement. Adobe also announced a series of updates to its Creative Cloud at the event.

Assistant editor Mekhala Roy contributed to this week's news roundup.

Next Steps

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on Microsoft's foray into immersive computing, quality assurance and the Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 disaster, and the security versus privacy debate.


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