Over the last few years, I have been impressed with the rapid innovation and reliability of the Office 365 platform. As the CTO of the National Aquarium, I made sure we were one of the first nonprofits on the platform. We were such early adopters, they didn't release nonprofit plans until a year after we were on the platform. As an early adopter, I lived through some of the early pains of the hybrid Exchange and directory sync functionality. Even with the bumps along the road, I became an advocate of Microsoft, words that even now seem a little odd for me to say given my history as an open source advocate. I've spent a lot of my career finding ways around Microsoft's stodgy product offerings like SharePoint and moved quite a number of nonprofits to Google Enterprise off their old Exchange email servers. A couple of years back, I wrote a comparison series between Office 365 and Google Enterprise, and declared Microsoft the clear winner.
My slide into Microsoft fanboy status skidded to a halt over the last year as Microsoft introduced and started to push Microsoft Teams onto its customer base.
Teams? The Groove Networks Dream Still Lives
Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes, started a company called Groove Networks. Before the cloud, Groove promised improved effective collaborative work through a neat way to store documents in team space leveraging the file sharing technology popular at the time (think Napster). If you uploaded a document into your group space on your computer, the document would be transferred to the group space on other group members' computers. The technology would also allow users to work off the same document together. Microsoft bought the company in 2005 and made Ray Ozzie their CTO and later Chief Software Architect. While Groove was not widely adopted despite Microsoft's best efforts, the file sharing technology is still used to some degree in SharePoint/OneDrive.
I connect to this history because much of the time past is prologue. In many ways, Teams is the next generation of what was essentially a failed product. Groove wasn't widely adopted because of the extra step that is required to access it, a similar problem inherent in any alternative to email, such as your organization's intranets or extranet. The extra layer outside of email or an office application is just really hard to get folks to adopt, no matter the collaborative benefits. Teams attempts to be that application beyond email to facilitate group work. In many ways, Teams is a Groove with the additions of a social feed, cloud (as opposed to distributed client) storage, and integration with a unified communications platform (online chat, web conferencing, presence, etc.).
Teams? What is It?
If you aren't familiar with it, here is some of the functionality it provides:
- Formal and informal group creation. Formal groups set up within the organization already have a Team in the system. Users may also quickly spin up other teams for collaborative work.
- Group Communications. Communicate multi-modal with either a chat, web conference, or phone call. Teams acts as the communications software and logs all communications in the stream of the group that is communicating with each other.
- Stream for each team created. There's a stream for each team created where all of the web conferences, chats, etc are stored in the stream like a social media stream.
- Collaborative content creation. Easily access recent documents and open up Word/Excel/Powerpoint online within the Teams application.
- Third-Party Integration. There are a number of third-party integrations that allow for other applications to be integrated within the Team's stream and operating from Teams.
Teams? We Already Have Groups
Groups is an underlying building block technology to Office 365 in that all applications leverage the permissions sets and organizing principles of a group. Groups is also an application, or rather an application that brings together the Office 365 universe. The genius of Groups is that it is integrated to email in Outlook. It brings typical groupware features like shared file libraries and SharePoint team sites directly into Outlook. This is so key because email is the one killer application that most workers spend much of their work lives within. This was working really well...and then Microsoft introduced Teams.
You might also be asking Teams? Groups? What's the difference? Off the bat, there is a real branding issue that is almost nonsensical.
Beyond the branding there's a real set of questions. Should I be directing my staff to work in Groups or Teams? Groups is built into Outlook. Group conversations render as both a feed from within the group and can be sent as email to my inbox. So why would I move to Teams? Similarly Groups have a shared One Drive for collaborative document creation and each group smartly comes with a SharePoint team site that can connect existing SharePoint intranet to the Groups framework.
Teams is a separate application entirely. The extra clicks to get over to Teams present a barrier that Groups. Just on this alone, I'd prefer my folks to stay in Groups for collaborative work.
Teams? We just Migrated to Skype for Business.
For enterprises that migrated to Skype for Business within the last couple of years, the need to switch over to Teams is jarring for both IT staff and general users. Teams is the latest stake in the Skype brand that Microsoft inexplicable drives into the ground. When Microsoft bought Skype in 2011 for $8.5 Billion, many observers asked why or why purchase at such a high price. From my perspective, Microsoft bought a global brand with a strong track record for small business and personal communications. Skype brought down many of the barriers for international telephony throughout its history and had a large, if unprofitable, customer base. Microsoft renamed its Lync enterprise communications product as Skype for Business and with the rebrand brought over much of the solid Skype user interface. However, Microsoft never really integrated the its consumer products with business products and Skype lost marketshare to What'sApp as the global messaging platform of choice.
Now, Microsoft is slowly forcing enterprises to adopt Teams and leave Skype for Business behind. This is a really bad idea. Here are a few reasons why:
- Bloated communications client. Teams is Bloatware if you just want a unified communications client. People want the simplicity of a client that allows you to see who is online and click to instant message, call, or video conference those users. This unified communications architecture really works quite well. Teams weighs this simplicity down by adding a bunch of other functionality to the communications client, functionality that I'm not sure is entirely useful.
- Skype as Telephony. Many enterprises made the switch to Lync or Skype for Business for their telephony. Even with all the additional features, people want the simplicity of picking up a phone handset. While I'm sure that they MS can rebrand the Skype telephones as Teams phones, I'm not entirely sure what it means for the phone/PBX service that Microsoft started providing in its cloud within the last few years.
- Online meetings are competing with Zoom, not Slack. Many view Teams as Microsoft's answer to Slack. Slack really is its own communication platform that in which feed-based conversations can quickly be created and organized by hashtag within a group. Enterprises, especially newer, startup enterprises have adopted it because it is so easy to use and does what it does well. You can add third party integrations in which data is dumped into these hashtag based channels within your group, but Slack does so while maintaining ease of use and not trying to do too much. The primary competitor for online meeting/telephony/messaging functionality isn't Slack, but rather Zoom. Zoom is picking up significant market share in this space with again easy to use web conferencing tools. Skype for Business and any successor is competing against Zoom, not Slack. I just don't believe one product can effectively compete in two entirely different market segments.
Teams? I could be completely mistaken.
Of course, I could be completely offs about all this and maybe Microsoft has pulled together the next killer app by cobbling together a few apps and putting teams in a social feed. And don't get me wrong. There are some really great features like cloud recording of team meetings that drop right into the feed of the team that had the meeting. This could be really useful for that weekly team check-in. But like Groove before, there's too much going on for the end user and the lack of integration with email still places it outside the product ecosystem in which the entire installed base of enterprise users have been working for three decades.
I am very reluctant to introduce Teams into my organization, even though we are all in Office 365. I imagine a lot of technology leaders are as well. I want to be wrong. Convince me that leaving Skype for Business and Office 365 groups in Outlook and Sharepoint for Teams is the right choice.