Microsoft has made it easier for Teams users to communicate beyond their organisation by allowing them to start a chat with any Teams users, including free personal Teams accounts.
Allowing connections to personal Teams accounts should help commercial Teams account owners connect to SMBs, many of which use Teams personal accounts for business, according to Microsoft. Since the feature also extends Teams to chat with external Teams commercial users, this should help Teams commercial customers strengthen ties with vendors and partners of all sizes, while potentially broadening its appeal for business-to-consumer communications.
As of last week, Microsoft Teams had 270 million monthly active users (MAU), up from 250 million MAU last July. It also reported this week it had 1.4 billion Windows users.
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But the company is also aiming to grow Teams MAUs by pushing it beyond its established Office 365 enterprise base. It is broadening its appeal to consumers by giving the Teams Chat button a prime spot in the Windows 11 taskbar. Teams doesn't have WhatsApp's billion-plus consumer users as WhatsApp makes inroads as an essential tool for business-to-consumer communications.
The commercial-to-personal Teams chat feature should support this ambition by making it more accessible for communications with SMBs and consumers on personal Teams accounts.
Teams users can reach out to external contacts by entering the full email address or phone number of the contact they want to reach.
Users can also initiate a one-to-one chat or group chat with anyone who has a personal account without requiring "tenant switching", meaning to switch between a personal and commercial accounts or multiple tenants.
"Once the person you invited accepts the invitation, you can start a new 1:1 or group chat or even add them to an existing external group chat. This chat thread will appear alongside your other chats, no tenant switching is required to view the chat," Microsoft explains in a blogpost.
Depending on administrative settings in an organization, the feature update should also allow external Teams personal account users to start conversations with Teams users at work. Teams personal users need to "enter the exact organizational email address of the user they want to reach and attempt to start a chat."
If a person asked to join a chat isn't on Teams already, they'll receive an email or text message inviting them to join in using a personal account. They can join the chat after signing up and logging in to that account. Commercial users can also add these people to an existing external group chat.
The feature supports user controls like blocking messages from external users and leaving a group chat. Teams personal users can also decline external invitations. Users can message an external user up to 10 times before they accept, but after this limit is reached no further messages are allowed.
IT admins do have controls over outbound and inbound chat. Microsoft explains:
- Outbound chat: enable/disable users in the organization to initiate a chat with external Teams personal accounts users (e.g. users who are not invited guests through Azure AD B2B collaboration). (Enabled by default)
- Inbound chat: enable/disable external users with Teams accounts not managed by an organization to initiate a chat with your users. (Enabled by default)
Of course, opening commercial Teams users to chat from external and personal accounts does open the door to email-like spam and related security threats.
IT admins still have all the usual security controls and can disable chat with unmanaged Teams accounts in the admin portal. Microsoft emphasizes several protections that remain in place, even when external chat has been enabled. These include:
- Explicit opt-in: end users are not shown messages unless they click to preview, are reminded of the risks of external chat, and are asked to explicitly accept or block the message request.
- External badging: visible in both the chat list and chat header.
- Spam checks: prior to an explicit 'accept', every message sent by a Teams personal account goes through runtime spam checks. If spam is detected, the chat message is not delivered.
- Message limits: messages prior to an explicit 'accept' are limited to 10. Additional messages are not delivered.
- Admin controls: robust controls at the tenant and user-level govern external access scenarios.
- User's security: to help protect the user, we only display the name and email address, but no other identifiers like profile pictures.
- Teams personal account users can manage their discoverability in their settings menu and opt out from being discoverable by other Teams users.