Farewell then, Slack: The grown-ups have arrived

Rumours of email's death have been greatly exaggerated

Comment Slack chief exec Stewart Butterfield is one of the more thoughtful Web 2.0 CEOs, but his software is like those movie sets in Westerns: all facade, no house.

A beautiful UX is created, the hipsters are lured in. It worked for Flickr, and it worked for Slack.

“Slack just feels, looks and sounds different than the boring enterprise competition. And that makes it fun to use and turned it into a billion dollar company,” one designer concluded. The cutesy interjections, folksy changelogs and serious (custom) emoji support all screamed “We’re not boring enterprise” – all the while pitching businesses to pony up some real money.

But now the grown-ups have arrived. Yesterday Microsoft, unshackled Teams from Office and launched a free hosted rival.

Microsoft certainly has some catching up to do, with around half a million Teams users, it's far behind the three million users that Slack says pay for its product; Slack is adding 1.5 million to the paid tier every 18 months.

You wonder where the $340m Slack raised actually went. Beer busts?

But El Reg wonders who today would opt for Slack over Teams, or arch rival Ryver? Teams gets you a lot of Slack's paid functionality for free. (In the UK, Slack costs £63 or £117 per user per year; the latter buys you compliance functions and Active Directory sync). Teams is unhampered by the free Slack tier's message limitation – only the most recent 10,000 messages will be viewable and searchable – where if you miss a day's work, you can miss a day's Slack messages. Microsoft's rival also integrates with third-party services, as well as Microsoft's own products, avoiding a mistake Microsoft (like IBM before it) made so many times.

Many readers consistently deride Slack, asking whether it isn't a pretty wrapper around a reimplementation of the Internet Relay Chat protocols?

"My money's on IRC to last the longest," one of our readers wrote in May.

The worrying thing for Slack is how little it has changed since 2015, when it first took off. That should be the big concern. For Slack is a business, and Teams is a feature. Teams can happily remain as a feature until the heat death of the universe, but Slack needs to convince investors it's a viable business. And the way to do that is to add value, which would justify putting the prices up. In terms of enterprise software pricing, Slack is already keenly priced, so in theory, there should be room to manoeuvre.

bearded gentleman raises glass

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But how do you add value to a product that pretty much already does what it set out to do? Slack did not merely place a wrapper around IRC, as cynics suggest, the third-party plumbing turned it into a dashboard for notifications. But once that was achieved its work was done.

The ephemeral nature of notifications (and much chatter) means you don’t really need it hanging around. How do you turn Chat into Chat++? Slack already has. You wonder where the $340m it raised actually went. Beer busts? Maybe it went on basic security.

I’ll suggest that Slack prospered because of two great pieces of fortune.

As a nimble upstart, Slack benefited from the general chaos and incoherence of larger enterprise software companies, specifically Microsoft. Last year I recklessly suggested that Microsoft was starting to get its messy and volatile messaging portfolio into shape.

Microsoft offered Yammer, GroupMe, Teams, Skype, Lync. Google’s portfolio was almost as messy: Voice, Buzz, Talk, Hangouts, Allo, Duo. Choosing Slack seemed so simple. As a business you weren’t committing to a product with a short shelf life that might be axed in the next Microsoft or Google rethink.

But all have benefited from the absence of IRC+. If the industry can coalesce around open chat protocols federated around trusted servers, or even self-hosted, then that's something Microsoft can live with. But Slack may not.

Slack promised the "death of email", but perhaps email is more resilient than anyone expected. Post-GDPR, email inboxes are nicer places to go to now. ®




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