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Slack launched in 2013 and announced it had a million active users in 2015. It's a collaboration system that enables real time communication with colleagues in a selection of user defined channels which are segregated by topic. You can type messages in channels and other users in those channels can see them, react to them, reply to them and so on. You can also do video chats and screen sharing if you opt to pay for the service.
It's easy to miss the point of Slack. I did for many weeks. I installed it to see what the fuss was all about, installed the desktop application, then just ignored it for a couple of weeks. But then I thought: "Wouldn't it be nice if I had notifications every time someone checked code in, and we could talk about the check ins." This is where Slack comes into its own. You can set up integrations into each channel which allow third party applications to send messages directly into your channels.
We use Gogs for our source control at Trogsoft, and that provides the ability to post messages to web hooks when code is checked in. It already knows about Slack and can send messages specifically formatted for Slack and, behold! They appear in a channel.
If you use the desktop application, you get a proper Windows 10 notification in the bottom corner which then appears in the Action Centre. From here it became obvious how the tool could help. Sharing code snippets, screenshots and having a searchable database of everything that has ever been said is also very useful. There are options you can carry out on everyone's messages including the ability to share it, follow it (so you see any follow-up messages), even setting a reminder so you can come back and deal with it later.
It's fast, it's streamlined, it's very easy to use.
Which brings us to Microsoft Teams. It's fairly obvious that Teams is a response to the popularity of Slack, and putting it in their Office 365 suite of tools will probably influence a lot of businesses to use Teams where they may have been considering, or in some cases already using, Slack. Why pay for two pieces of software after all? That bundling allows Microsoft to get away with certain things. People who already paying for Office 365 and effectively getting Teams for free may be more willing to forgive problems than people paying specifically for Slack. Maybe, anyway. I don't know.
Is it any good?
Yes and no. It's fractionally slower in most operations. If you're used to Slack, that might be a problem. Switching from channel to channel takes a fraction of a second longer. It's not a huge amount, but it can be noticeable. The other really obvious thing is how much space is wasted in the user interface. The 'Teams' view only takes up the middle portion of the scrolling area. You can't tell in the screenshot below, but imagine the window was made wider. The boxes containing the text in the chat view would remain the same width as they appear below.
There's a massive "Reply" button under each message which gets in the way. The concept of the Teams view is slightly different to Slack - it wants to focus on threaded topic-based conversations rather than free-flowing chat. The box where you type at the bottom of the screen where you would type a message into the channel in Slack is intended to start a new conversation (or thread) in Teams. You then use the Reply button to respond to specific conversations. As a concept, I don't like that part so much. If there are numerous conversations going on in the same channel it can be very hard to follow - surely this is what channels are for anyway?
There are a few other problems too. Team has the concept of integrations and they work in a broadly similar way as Slack's, but the standard Incoming Webhook integration does not support Slack formatted messages. Maybe you think that's fair enough - this isn't Slack, after all - but it does mean that migrating straight from Slack to Teams isn't as easy as it could have been. For what it's worth, the Teams webhook notification format is actually more functional than the Slack notifications. Users in Teams can respond to webhook notifications in customisable ways. For example, if you have a Ticket system posting updates into a Teams channel, your users can respond to a ticket directly inside Teams. That's pretty cool, but some measure of compatibility between the two would have been nice while Microsoft is still playing catch up.
There's more too. Each team has a "Files" area which they can upload things to, and a Wiki which can be edited by team members. This adds an interesting dimension. If you have access to Office 365 calendars, they can also appear in Teams. More on these items in the next post in this series.
Which is better? They both have pros and cons. Teams isn't quite as good as Slack right now. Give Microsoft a bit longer, though, and they could easily pull out a lead. It could be an interesting battle to watch.