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Microsoft: Hit the road, Slack

Microsoft's making Teams freely available is a proven play that the company famously used to dethrone Netscape.

Video: Collaboration software: Time to call BS

Microsoft has entered and exited many markets over the years. But the way most people interact with its products revolves around personal productivity, best represented by Office. While Windows may have had to retreat from the mobile landscape, Office is still there winning recommendations from app store curators and extending the value of Microsoft's Office 365 subscription option.

Office itself has seen components come and go over the years, including a number of overlapping collaboration options. But they lacked what Microsoft had used time and time again in the rise of its productivity applications -- a clear leader to model. That changed with Slack, which had succeeded far beyond the scope or similar rival business chat applications such as Flock and the once hacked and wrist-bound HipChat.

Also: 7 ways you can (maybe) get Microsoft Office 365 for free

Indeed, the trajectory of the latter shows what kind of impact that Microsoft's entry into a proven market for its wares can have. Even before Microsoft limited Teams to high-end Office subscribers, it reshaped the competitive dynamic. Atlassian, despite being the parent company of HipChat, was one of the early companies to support Teams integration with its popular Trello kanban board. But it ultimately decided to bury HipChat by selling it to Slack, which will shut down HipChat and seek to retain its users.

That will be more challenging than in the past given the new free version of Teams. By including Teams free with higher-tier subscription levels of Office 365, Microsoft struck first where Slack actually drives most of its revenue, in larger organizations. But the new free version of Teams, with its more generous allotments for integration and storage compared to Slack, enables Microsoft to apply Teams to more grassroots scenarios.

The competition between Teams and Slack evokes some of the competitive scenarios that are high points in Microsoft history. The most famous of these was Internet Explorer, which took advantage of its integration with Windows to vanquish Netscape.

Also: Slack: The smart person's guide TechRepublic

But that was a long time ago. Nowadays, the shoe is on the other foot, and Microsoft's integration of Edge buys it little versus the market leader beyond the privilege of nagging users to reconsider using Chrome. On the other hand, Chrome's presence as the default browser on Android makes it difficult for other browser makers to gain a mobile advantage.

Without today's default clients for iOS, Android and the web -- all of which Microsoft has developed -- Teams wouldn't have a chance against Slack. However, Microsoft has reached beyond many Slack-challenging freebies such as unlimited chat history and unlimited integrations. Teams brings the battle to Microsoft's home turf, that is, if your organization is not a G Suite shop.

Like Slack, Teams is built for an environment where people are actively creating and shaping projects. While mobile devices have made amazing progress in traditional productivity in the past few years, much of that is still the domain of the PC. It's not just that Teams works with Office, but it is the vital connective tissue Office has been missing for too long.

Slack will likely retain favor with smaller entrepreneurial teams and developers (one of its key early audiences). However, just as many freelancers need the flexibility to work in Office or G Suite depending on their clients, many will likely need to communicate on both Slack and Teams in the coming years.

Also: Microsoft Teams: A cheat sheet TechRepublic

Back in 2005, Internet Explorer's ascent was marked by Bill Gates' famous Internet Tidal Wave memo. The culture shift embodied by that manifesto enabled Battleship Microsoft to nimbly navigate into more favorable waters in which to win the first browser war. In contrast, Slack is hardly the kind of existential threat to Microsoft that was created by Netscape and resurrected by Google. And Slack has not engaged in the kind of brash Microsoft provocation Netscape pursued via trash talk and lawsuits.

That said, even in an age where Microsoft's interests turn increasingly toward the cloud and AI, Slack in many ways strikes much closer to the DNA of Microsoft embodied in Office. Microsoft may not succeed in reducing Slack's popular functionality into a largely invisible Office component. But no team collaboration app is needed to convey this message: It's on.


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