Author(s): Angela Ashenden
On 12 July at its Inspire 2018 partner event, Microsoft announced a new, free version of Teams, its group collaboration tool. Designed for small and medium businesses that aren't already users of Office 365, the free service supports up to 300 team members, including external collaborators as well as employees.
Clearly intended to compete directly with Slack's free edition, the latest Microsoft Teams platform offers unlimited chat and search, 10GB of shared file storage and an additional 2GB storage per person. It also allows one-to-one and group audio and video calls, as well as unlimited app integrations, and supports the same 40 languages as in the full version of the product, which ships as part of most Office 365 business and enterprise editions.
Since launching Teams in March 2017, Microsoft has been investing heavily in it, expanding its integration with other Office 365 and third-party products, and bringing Skype for Business functionality into the application. Earlier in 2018, the company revealed that 200,000 organisations are now using Teams, and this latest move aims to grow its adoption beyond Office 365 customers.
This "viral" adoption strategy of encouraging individuals to try the application with their teams, enabling pockets of uptake to expand inside organisations in an organic way, has proved extremely successful for Microsoft's top rival in this area. Slack, which started out with a freemium pricing model back in 2014, now has more than 8 million daily active users and 70,000 paid teams. Microsoft hopes that its more generous free version will tempt people away from Slack — whose free service offers 5GB storage, one-to-one calling and only 10 app integrations — and increase the traction of Teams.
Maintaining momentum in artificial intelligence investment
The company also announced several other tools relating to teamwork and Office 365 at Inspire:
- Intelligent event capabilities within Office 365: these features allow customers to create live and on-demand events, using artificial intelligence to provide automatic closed captions and searchable, time-coded transcriptions, as well as a speaker timeline powered by facial detection.
- Workplace Analytics features, in preview mode: these enable organisations to define goals and create programmes for improving productivity from meetings and communications. They also enable users to monitor progress against those goals, taking activity data from the Microsoft Graph. Programmes can also be pushed down to the employee level, allowing individuals to compare their own progress with defined targets.
- Artificial intelligence-powered "nudges" within Outlook: these tools make recommendations based on your actions, for example, suggesting blocking out time for focused work if you have lots of meetings scheduled, or flagging that you're regularly e-mailing co-workers after business hours.
- General availability of the Microsoft Whiteboard application for Windows 10, with iOS and Web versions "coming soon".
It's great to see Microsoft's continued pace of advancement in the application of artificial intelligence and its Microsoft Graph. These capabilities are increasingly the connecting tissue, helping to better integrate applications and workflows within Microsoft 365, and enabling Microsoft to more clearly articulate its direction and differentiation in this space.
Over to you, Slack and Google
The launch of a free version of Microsoft Teams is a great move, giving the product wings to move beyond the business-focused realms of Office 365 to capture the imagination of individuals looking for a team collaboration alternative. For Microsoft, the goal is clearly to build grassroots adoption of Teams that will ultimately lead to sales of Office 365, but for many small businesses or cross-organisation teams, the free offering will be sufficient. The higher usage that this brings will help to build momentum for Teams, boost its profile, feed into its development strategy and road map, and fuel the Microsoft Graph. Teams is increasingly taking a central role in Microsoft's enterprise collaboration strategy, and it's clear that there's some serious investment behind the platform.
Microsoft's competitors will undoubtedly be anxiously watching the market response to this move: the company is the biggest threat to Slack's current dominance in the team collaboration space, and Slack needs to carefully manage how it counters this challenge. Microsoft's pace of development in this area, underpinned by the weight of its development resource and partner network, will be worrying to Slack, which is starting to position itself for a future initial public offering. It can't afford to lose momentum at this stage.
The other rival that will be watching closely is Google. Earlier in 2018, it launched Hangouts Chat as part of its G Suite offering, which was its first foray into the group collaboration arena. The company has been building its investment in artificial intelligence and analytics, and is keen to challenge Microsoft Office 365 more seriously in the enterprise collaboration and productivity market. Google will have to move fast to respond; right now, Microsoft holds all the cards.
This will be an interesting battle to watch. We expect some revelations at Google's Cloud Next event in a couple of weeks, which CCS Insight will be attending. Stay tuned!
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