By Galen Gruman
For months now, we’ve been hearing about Microsoft Teams, Microsoft’s much-heralded Slack killer for corporate chat. It’s now in official release (what Microsoft calls “general availability”) as part of Microsoft’s Office 365 enterprise plans. Sadly, Teams is underwhelming in its formal debut and definitely not a match for the hype Microsoft has been providing since October 2016. For a product so late to market, Microsoft should have delivered much more.
We all know Yammer was a massive failure, and Teams is meant to bury that corpse and present us a replacement. In the meantime, Slack has gained a strong following because it is a great product that works well, is highly capable, and runs on any device you might use. It’s very easy to get addicted to Slack, and it’s set a high bar. (Atlassian’s HipChat is capable, but nowhere near as well designed as Slack. That may be why the new Hangouts Chat for G Suite users, expected in May or June, at first blush looks so Slack-like.)
Teams simply isn’t anywhere as good as it should be. It doesn’t hold a candle to Slack, in fact. I’m reminded of Windows Phone, which debuted a few years after the iPhone but seems like it was designed with BlackBerry as the competition. Teams feels like that in the face of the now-several-years-old Slack—it’s the Windows Phone of business chat.
Microsoft is the underdog here, and relying on its installed base is a dangerous strategy—as Microsoft should know from its Yammer, Windows 8, and Windows Phone debacles. Microsoft’s imprimatur no longer guarantees a product’s adoption. It needs to actually be good. Yes, there are IT shops that will give Microsoft years to get things right—they prefer it to relying on a small company like Slack or Atlassian—but that’s the same miscalculation Microsoft made with Windows Phone and Windows 8.
What Microsoft Teams does right
Before I get into what Teams lacks, I want to point out what it has going for it, besides its inclusion in the Office 365 suite.
Teams is cross-platform. For one, it’s available out of the gate for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android, evidence that Microsoft is serious about its all-platforms strategic shift.
Teams integrates with other Microsoft services. As you’d expect, Teams integrates with the Exchange/Active Directory ecosystem, so you no longer have to worry about departed employees having access to your corporate chats. Although you still have to manually add users to individual teams, it’s easy to do so if you’ve already set up security groups in Exchange, as you can add all members of a group in one action.
Another benefit is Teams’ integration with Skype for Business, so you can conduct audio, video, and screen-sharing chats easily from your Teams textual chats. Skype for Business could have been another Yammer, but Microsoft finally made Skype for Business work across platforms, so now it can truly be your standard internal communications tool.
The integration with Exchange calendar is also nice, so you can see and join meetings when within Teams. Skype for Business has the same core capability, but it’s good to see Microsoft propagate it elsewhere. Teams does it better than Skype for Business does; Teams lets you check other people’s availability to schedule a call, for example, and it lets you meet with everyone in the current channel or only the people you choose.
Teams’ document tabs are handy. There’s also a truly innovative feature in Teams: the ability to put documents in a channel’s list of tabs, similar to adding sites to a browser’s bookmarks bar. That way, relevant documentation, status reports, and the like can be easily accessed by members of a channel. Even better, you can link your OneDrive files to the channel, so the current version is always available to users, not a copy you have to keep updating manually in Teams. Note that your channel can have more files than those pinned as tabs; the File pane shows all uploaded files available.
What Teams doesn’t do well (yet)
Keep in mind that Teams is a new product, so any or all of its deficits might be addressed in the future. In fact, when I met with Microsoft to discuss Teams, its product manager acknowledged many of the criticisms I and others made when Teams was in beta and said those issues were under discussion or even on the product road map. But Microsoft has tended to let flaws stick around for several versions, so don’t count those chickens any time soon—the joke that version 3.0 of any Microsoft product is the one that works is from the 1990s, after all.
Critical features are missing in Teams. Private channels are not yet available, so managers, HR, lawyers, and so on can’t speak openly and honestly in their own channels, and rank-and-file employees can’t close the virtual door to do their jobs without busybodies listening. Having private channels is a key benefit and fundamental need for distributed work teams. A chat tool without private communications won’t get real usage. (Direct messages in Teams are private, except of course to IT admins.)
Microsoft says private channels are coming, some day. It’s bad enough to launch a chat tool without such a basic and important feature, but it seems outright arrogant to do so when private channels has been a frequent and persistent request from the initial beta testers for months. Was Microsoft not listening?
Well, sort of — Microsoft notes that the teams in Teams are private, so only members of a team can see the channel discussions within it. That sounds like private channels, but it’s not really. Teams’ approach will cause organizations to create lots and lots of small teams where privacy is an issue, fragmenting discussions and hindering cross-communication. It’s sort of like making every team work in a separate building, instead of providing private meeting rooms and offices in a common building. Think of a department manager, who will end up in multiple teams: one for other managers, one for her whole team, and likely several more for specific projects. Private channels is a better way to slice those multiple interactions.
The fact that Microsoft is promising private channels while suggesting its current teams approach fulfills the same need tells you that Microsoft knows it doesn’t really do that.
Also promised but not yet real is the ability to add external users, such as contractors and business partners, to Teams. Yammer has it, so it’s strange that Teams doesn’t include it out of the gate. (Microsoft promises external users will be supported by summer.)
Teams’ notifications are lacking. Per-channel controls over notifications don’t exist, which means you have to choose between getting pinged all the time or not at all. Most people will choose not at all, possibly placing them out of the loop when it matters.
Messaging features in Teams are basic. The messaging options are quite limited compared to Slack: no follow, mute, remind, pin, mark unread, or other such options in Teams.
Teams does provide the essential capabilities. It’s easy to type in messages and see your thread. You can edit and delete messages after the fact, and of course you can add emoticons. You can name-check people in Twitter’s @-style to alert them of an incoming message (so they get a notification). You can add files to channels. And you can see users’ activities elsewhere in Teams, though I suspect the benefit is more for managers checking whether a person’s commentary is broadly questionable.
The user interface in Teams is very poor. Then there’s the human factor. As one of my Teams co-testers put it, “I do wonder about usability.” For good reason—Microsoft is bad at user interfaces. They’re too complex, too simple, or too inconsistent. Microsoft’s UI ineptitude brings to mind the stereotype that white men can’t dance. It’s true enough for enough of the time. Skype for Business is both unintuitive and a confusing mess, for example. OneDrive has only recently started to make sense operationally, but still has a ways to go. Windows Vista and Windows 8 are the most obvious examples of Microsoft’s lack of human factors know-how.
Teams is a little confusing like OneDrive and a little primitive like Skype for Business. Take pinning (aka favorites), for example: In Teams, you pin favorite channels in the Teams window. You pin favorite direct-message users in the Chat window. The Teams menu shows you channels, but you can’t tell which have new messages at a glance. The separate Activity window shows new messages, but divorced from their context (channel or conversation).
By contrast, both Slack and HipChat have a unified pane for channels and users, with an indicator showing where you have new messages. On the desktop or on a tablet, that view is always present, so you always know what’s new (and who’s away or muted) with a simple glance.
In Teams, your messages are split across multiple windows, so you have to look for them: direct messages in the Chats window, replies to channel threads in the Activity window (oddly called Alerts in the mobile clients), and the whole channel threads in the Teams window—seriously. In other words, the designers didn’t focus on the user behavior and context but on Teams’ internal organization of the communications.
Microsoft claims this division of conversations by type makes it easier to keep chats separate and know which you want to focus on. I think the same beta testers who loved Windows 8 must be the ones recruited for Teams’ UI testing. You have to use a competing service—or email—to know a unified list organized into sections is the better approach providing both at-a-glance visibility and an organization meant to keep activities separate.
Another example of a clunky UI: Teams has an interesting feature for adding Office documents to a channel’s tabs, so they become sticky lists of documents. But you can’t simply add a document directly to the tabs; you first have to add them through the conversation in the channel. Then you add them as a tab from the Files window. That’s two steps, where one would be better.
Also, when you create tabs, the UI presents the tabs as icons for Microsoft apps, so you quickly assume you’ll have a tab for each file type (Word, Excel, and so on), with perhaps multiple files in each. No, each tab is actually a document. Choosing the app simply narrows the list of available documents to that file type. Again, the approach is more complicated than necessary, made more confusing by emphasizing the file type in the tab when it is not focus of the tab.
The desktop apps also tend to sign you off after you’ve been idle or have used other devices. That means you no longer see any notifications on new messages. That’s not a smart move in a tool that tends to be used on demand on multiple devices, both simultaneously and at different times (like at home and at work).
Teams’ mobile apps are crippled. Then there are the mobile apps, which are clearly afterthoughts to Microsoft. There are too many windows to navigate on a smartphone, and the tablet apps don’t take advantage of their larger screens, so messages occupy the whole width of your iPad screen, rather than reserving a sidebar for navigating among Teams’ windows as the desktop app does. I mean, come on!
Mobile users are definitely treated as second-class citizens when it comes to functionality, too. You can’t create channels or manage team members, for example. Nor can you add files other than images, not even from OneDrive or Office, both of which run on iOS and Android … or add channels or users as favorites.
Plus, the mobile apps have none of the Skype for Business, Exchange calendar, or OneDrive integration of the desktop apps. That’s stupid: People communicate heavily on mobile devices, and they must be at least as capable of their desktop clients. Yet Microsoft seems to believe it’s still 2006 when all we had were text-oriented BlackBerry communicators and flip phones for communicating away from our desks.
Finally, Teams’ iOS app is inferior to the Android app (it’s usually the other way around for Microsoft). For one, it lacks the Recents tab seen on the Android (and Windows and MacOS) clients, so you can’t view all your recent messages in one place, which is one of Microsoft’s touted advantages of Teams over Slack or HipChat. All you can see in Alerts in iOS are messages from people who name-checked you, in the Notifications tab.
Teams doesn’t work in Safari on the Mac. Finally, it always frosts me as a primarily Mac user when a cross-platform service doesn’t support Safari. Teams doesn’t, though support is promised. (It does work in Chrome and Firefox in both Windows and MacOS.) It’s not even smart enough to open the Mac Teams app when you try to access it in Safari, though if you try to open the Teams URL in Safari in iOS, Teams opens the native app automatically. Argh! At least the Mac app seems to be treated as equal to the Windows version.
Bottom line: Teams isn’t yet a serious competitor to Slack
All of these complaints are fixable, but they shouldn’t exist at this stage. That’s why Teams is so upsetting. It’s more a marketing promise than a complete product. Worse, it’s nowhere near usable.
I can see one day switching from Slack to Teams as our default messaging tool. After all, we’re already paying for Teams in our Office 365 enterprise subscription. We have reason to hope that Microsoft will pull it together, but Microsoft gives us no reason to believe that day will be soon.
Meanwhile, we’re sticking with what works. Slack is great, and no one needs Teams to replace it.