Microsoft Teams, First Take: Useful, even in preview

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Chat is nothing new in business (or even new to Microsoft), but it's now heading out of the technical department and the personal chat clients, and into the wider workforce. Microsoft Teams has some obvious similarities to Slack and HipChat and other business chat services, but it has a different focus: this is chat for teams of people in your business who already use Office 365, and want to base their collaboration around those tools and services.

It's also chat that fits into the security, authentication and compliance that Office 365 provides for businesses. Microsoft Teams comes as part of your Office 365 subscription -- there will be no free version for businesses who don't use Office 365. And when the guest access feature arrives, we expect it to work like guest access in the Office 365 Groups on which Teams is based, with IT admins deciding whether guest users are allowed.

You can use Teams in a browser, or there are apps for Windows, macOS, iOS, Android and Windows 10 Mobile. They all use the familiar Office 365 sign-in experience, including multi-factor authentication if your tenant has set that up.

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Creating a new team in Microsoft Teams.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Teams are collections of people, and the content and tools to which they have access. The group of people who make up a Team are literally an Office 365 Group -- there's a SharePoint team site, a OneNote notebook and a calendar created for the team automatically. A manager can create a Team, but so can colleagues and ad-hoc teams.

Teams can be public or private; team owners control that (and when there's a way to see teams you're not part of, they'll be able to choose whether people can join a public group or if they need to be approved). Team owners can manage the tools available in a team, as well as adding and removing people -- and promoting them to be team owners. You can create multiple channels in a team to discuss different topics, and choose whether team members can create more channels themselves, delete unused ones, or use features like Giphy animated GIFs, stickers and memes in chat.

That means you might find yourself getting added to multiple teams. You can't prevent that, but you can leave any teams you want to, or just add the ones you use to Favorites and ignore the rest. Getting the right balance of who adds whom to what teams is more of a management problem than a technology issue, and Teams (and the underlying Groups) takes a sensibly lightweight approach to this, backed up by all the Office 365 options for controlling who has access to files and services.

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So even if someone in sales gets added to a finance team, that doesn't give them access to any finance files stored elsewhere in SharePoint. The Files tab in the interface shows you files from all the teams you're part of, with links to OneDrive for Business and your own downloads folder.

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Teams has threaded conversations, but also animated GIFs and a meme generator.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Chat and channels

There are multiple ways to chat in Teams. Each channel has a group text chat, which is threaded into individual conversations -- that's one of the biggest differences from other chat tools, and it helps you keep track of specific topics compared to the free-for-all of the chat stream. Group chat is only visible to people who are members of the team at that time (new members can't look back at old messages); you can also have 'private' conversations with other team members, where you can share files -- as long as they come from the team OneDrive (although there's a button in the chat window to upload files to share).

On the web and desktop apps, you can turn any conversation into a Skype for Business video call, or you can make those a bit more formal by scheduling meetings. In another nice bit of integration, you see the Team calendar and your own Exchange calendar in the meetings pane, to make scheduling simpler. Click on someone's avatar and you get a card with their contact details so you can email or use their normal phone number, or start a voice or video call straight to them. And unlike Skype for Business, when you make a call your microphone and camera are on straight away so you don't have to choose to unmute and share video -- that's because you're contacting colleagues on your team rather than people who might or might not be strangers.

Notifications mean you don't have to keep looking at the Teams window. You can pick and choose what alerts you want to see, and you can look in the Activity pane to see what you've missed (or use it as an inbox to catch up on conversations). Oddly, the Windows app is a desktop app rather than a UWP app. That means it will work on Windows 7 and 8.1 for businesses who haven't adopted Windows 10, but you do lose out on integration options. The notifications that pop up aren't rich toasts that you can reply to, as they are with the new Skype Preview app (and they don't get tracked in the Action Center). The Windows Phone, iOS and Android apps do better at this -- but that said, all of the apps are well organized and easy to use.

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Tabs allow you to customise the channel interface by adding links at the top.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Tabs let you customize the channel interface by adding links at the top. The default tabs move you between group chat, the files tab (which embeds the SharePoint team site for the channel), and Notes (which embeds the OneNote notebook for the channel -- again, hosted on SharePoint, so you can use it in all the standard OneNote clients).

As well as the files tab, you can pin specific Office files, as well as SharePoint sites, Team Services, Power BI and Planner -- and you can package up your own web apps with a manifest that adds them to the tab gallery. This will be ideal for internal line-of-business apps, and Microsoft is also working with third-party services to package up their apps to work with Teams. These will show up in the Tabs gallery, and we expect the usual Office 365 admin controls to allow team owners to choose which tabs are available to add to team channels.

Bots and connectors

Teams comes with T-Bot; a chatbot to answer your questions about Teams itself. Also in development is WhoBot, a bot that will help you find people in your organization with specific expertise, and again, Microsoft will include third-party bots in the Teams App Gallery in the future. You can also make your own chatbots -- any bot made with the Microsoft Bot Framework will work in Teams. At the moment, bots can only do one-to-one chat, not group chat.

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There are dozens of connectors you can add to Teams.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

There are dozens of connectors to third-party services, from Google Analytics Twitter to Zendesk -- there are so many already because services that have a connector for Office 365 Groups already just work with Teams (since it's based on Groups). What you get is a connection, and how useful that is with chat varies. We expect that to improve a lot before the preview of Teams turns into a shipping product.

Some features are superbly integrated on both the website and in the apps. Other Microsoft tools based on Office 365 Groups fit in beautifully when you add them as tabs: Power BI is a live dashboard of information, for example, while Planner looks like it's just part of the interface, giving you a structured to-do list. Wunderlist and Trello are also available as connectors, but what you get from them is notifications of events that you click to open the service rather than a live view of the information in that service. If those services create packages for Teams, they could be embedded just as seamlessly.

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Microsoft's Planner integrates well with Teams.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Similarly, seeing your recent files from SharePoint and OneDrive for Business alongside files from Teams is very handy, so you can quickly add in project files you've already started work on.

When you click on a file, you get a preview and the chat window alongside that preview is in exactly the right place to have a conversation, although it's annoying that it doesn't show comments that are inside the document in either the preview or the chat window. If it's an Office file you can edit it -- and that always takes you to a new window, either a web page for Office online or the native Office app. Click to add a Skype video call to the chat window and Skype takes over the whole window and your document preview is gone; click back to the document and you don't see the Skype video, although you can still have a voice conversation.

Useful already, with only a few niggles

Generally, Teams works well and is useful already, with the way you can structure teams into channels, and channels into conversations, proving particularly useful. While threaded chat takes a little bit more discipline than just typing into a Slack channel and letting everyone else sort out how the conversation is supposed to work, that more than pays off when you need to talk with a lot of people, or go back and pick up on an older conversation and not lose context. It's a hugely useful feature you might not even know you're missing in other chat clients.

Teams also makes it easier to find Office services you already have access to: the SharePoint site you need for a project is right there in the team interface; embedding OneNote in Teams means you can have your shared and individual notes in the same tool, not different systems, without worrying about anyone else seeing notes in your own notebook.

Even though Teams is a preview there are only a few niggles -- not yet being able to create a new team from the mobile apps, for example, or the website blanking then reloading itself from time to time. The features aren't yet identical across apps, with the web and desktop clients having the most tools. On iOS you can see files in each channel; on Android there's an extra 'recent files' view. And the big thing that's missing from the mobile apps is the ability to join a team meeting from the Teams app. There's also clearly room for additional features, whether that's the ability to give different reactions to a message than just 'like', the ability to tag saved conversations to help you categorise them, or options that group chat bots could add, like votes and surveys.

It's the integrations that highlight Teams' preview status, because those under Microsoft's control show how well this can work, while the others offer tantalising potential. Getting a rich ecosystem of third-party apps and services that plug in as if they were meant to be part of Teams all along will be the difference between Teams being very useful for businesses who already use Office 365, or good enough to bring people to Office 365.

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Topics: Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Reviews

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