Undoubtedly attracted by all of the success other companies have been having in the online collaboration space, Microsoft designed its Microsoft Teams application to let virtual groups combine their efforts across apps, files, and meetings. For $5 per user per month, Microsoft goes to great pains to take the best aspects of Slack and essentially build them into Microsoft Office 365 by using Microsoft Teams as the wedge. Not only does this integration give it a leg up from a features perspective, Microsoft’s large array of value-add partners and third-party Office 365 add-on apps give it even more power.
For those of you who have never used a chat app at work, here’s a small primer: Programs such as HipChat, Slack, Workplace by Facebook, and now Microsoft Teams provide you with a corporate-wide workspace in which your teams can have conversations as large groups or in smaller, private groups. Want to discuss marketing strategy? Create a private marketing chat room. Want to discuss the National Basketball Association? Create a private sports chat room. Want to send a message to the entire company? Send the message in the General channel.
As chat apps have evolved, they have enabled companies to include video conferencing tools, embedded video via YouTube, GIFs via Giphy, file sharing, and storage. Microsoft Teams can do all of this in a cohesive and embedded manner by connecting Microsoft’s large ecosystem of business apps to the Microsoft Teams user interface (UI) on a desktop or via a mobile app across Android, iOS, and Windows phones. Take a look at our deeper dive into the Microsoft Teams iOS app for a sense of how the simply designed mobile experience handles channel-based collaboration, calling, chat, and alerts.
As of July 2018, Microsoft has brought Microsoft Teams even closer to its arch-nemesis Slack, by giving it the one thing Slack’s always had that Microsoft tends to forget: A free version that’s actually worth the download, at least for smaller businesses. That’s because the free tier has a limit of 300 users. By contrast, Slack has no such limitation, but then again, 300 users will certainly cover most small businesses employee rosters. The Microsoft Teams free tier also has no message limit, meaning that even companies using the free version can rely on Microsoft Teams to let them search their entire message history with no worries concerning eventual deletion due to message cap. Though, while there’s no message cap, there are storage limits but even these are fairly lenient with 10 GB as a base and another 2 GB per user. Finally, Microsoft Teams even adds the niceties for free users, including user-to-user voice calls as well as group voice sessions, too. You can even leverage not only Microsoft Teams’ Office 365 integration, but any third-party app integrations you want to build yourself. That’s a lot of muscle for a free app, and it should Microsoft well in its ongoing Slack war.
The paid version of Microsoft Teams has eliminated the 300-user limit in the Enterprise version. There are several paid versions of Microsoft Teams, and Microsoft has provided a handy chart so you can see what’s included. One major change in Microsoft Teams comes as Microsoft combines some of the features of Skype for Business into Microsoft Teams. According to a Microsoft spokesperson, Skype for Business will eventually go away with its business Voice-over-IP (VoIP) calling features subsumed into Microsoft Teams.
As of June 2019, this process is underway but not completed. Microsoft Teams now supports VoIP calling features, in that you can call anyone with a phone using Microsoft’s cloud-based PBX. The calling feature supports softphones on desktop and laptop computers and on iOS and Android devices, and it supports a limited number of desk telephones. For example, when you click the “Calls” tab, you’ll see a choice to dial a number. Click that and a dial pad shows up in the app. I was able to make calls to users within the Microsoft Teams app and to outside lines on the PSTN.
Microsoft Teams: Interface
When you first open Microsoft Teams, you see a left-hand rail that includes the Activity, Chat, Teams, Meetings, and Files tabs. Click into a tab to see the different channels and files that exist within the subgroup. The Microsoft Teams interface is designed with a standard blue, grey, purple, and white theme that straddles the line between playful and serious. If this isn’t your cup of tea, you can adjust Team’s themes to one of two wackier and less corporate options.
Unlike Slack, which relies on a thread of conversations focused solely on the channel’s topic, Microsoft Teams lets you silo topics within a channel in order to help you better manage conversations. For example: If your advertising team alternates between conversations about TV and billboard buys, you can create a sub-conversation within the channel for both topics. This provides a more buttoned-up feel than what you’ll get in Slack, which provides a more stream of group consciousness philosophy to chatting, which can be good or bad, depending on how your mind works.
If you require lots of structure, then Microsoft Teams is absolutely more organized than Slack. However, this organization can also be daunting. Whereas Slack and Atlassian HipChat focus primarily on chat rooms, Microsoft Teams’ five-pronged approach to navigation leaves more room for navigational error. Thankfully, like HipChat and Slack, whenever you’re mentioned directly anywhere within the Microsoft Teams application, a red alert pops up on the Activity tab and directs you to your exact destination. You can customize your alerts to notify you only when you’re mentioned directly, or you can set alerts to notify you whenever any activity happens within a specific room. You can also mark activities as “read” and “unread” in order to set them aside for later. These are the minute features that separate Microsoft Teams from other collaboration apps on the market.
At the top of every channel, you’ll see a list of pre-populated services and tools that provide more context to the channel. Tools like ZenDesk, Microsoft Power BI, and Excel are easily accessible so users can view third-party or external data within the context of the channel. Users can view a document or application while having a conversation along the right side of the file, so as to not disrupt the conversation. All cloud-based tools that update in real time will update within the feed.
Microsoft Teams now supports integrated real-time content creation with Office Online (for the free version) and Office desktop apps (for the paid version). The paid version also includes advanced controls for IT and enterprise-grade security and compliance capabilities.
Microsoft now enables changes within the Microsoft Teams experience, , although the exact process depends on the version of Microsoft Teams you’re using. But even the free version supports real-time collaboration with Office Online. As of today, tools like Asana, HipChat, and Slack only allow users to attach documents that can be viewed by individual users. Microsoft Teams is the only tool that lets everyone look at a document within the context of a chatroom’s thread. Alongside the embedded tools you’ll also find related files, a company organizational chart (powered by Microsoft’s own Active Directory), and an Activity tab, which is a running history of all of your interactions within the specific group.
As with Slack and HipChat, you can easily embed files and GIFs from Giphy using shortcuts. You can also create memes by clicking on a design, cartoon, or image and then plugging in text. This is one of many examples of Microsoft embedding an experience into Microsoft Teams; on Slack and HipChat, you have to leave the application to grab images and add text in order to create memes. It may seem minor, but given the highly social and collegial nature of chat apps, the ability to stay within the tool is crucial in order to save time for more professional work. Heck, you can even use an emoji to name a chat room. Slack won’t even let you use uppercase letters or multiple words.
Microsoft Teams lets you connect to most cloud-based applications in real time. For example: You can plug a Twitter feed or a Facebook page into a Microsoft Teams channel. This means that whenever a new tweet or update loads it gets pushed into the conversation stream. This is a truly valuable experience, especially for organizations that rely on third-party information and timely responses to do their jobs (or for people like me who are too lazy to leave the Microsoft Teams experience to check their Facebook notifications).
If you see a video icon next to a conversation, then there’s an open video conference happening. You can jump into the meeting and take part, or you can avoid the channel so as not to be disruptive. These video chats aren’t Skype conversations so you don’t have to worry about the back-end server implications of your Skype/Skype for Business accounts. Anyone in your Microsoft Teams account can click your name, click the video icon, and call you.
You can also schedule video calls for a later date, and the tool will alert you that the call is about to begin, which is a nice upgrade over the basic video call feature available in HipChat and Slack. Microsoft Teams even lets you view someone’s Outlook calendar to determine the perfect time to schedule a Microsoft Teams video call. All video calls can be set to “recurring” so you won’t have to manually check everyone’s schedules every time you want to have a conference call. More importantly, you can squeeze a whopping 250 participants into one Microsoft Teams video call, which is over 10 times as many as HipChat allows, and more than fifteen times as many as Slack allows (15).
Bots in Microsoft Teams
No chat app would be complete without its own unique bots. Microsoft Teams integrates with PollyBot to allow you to take polls within a channel. So, if you’re trying to decide where to have the company holiday party, you can list three restaurants and have your team vote on which one they’d prefer. This would be a great feature for PCMag: We constantly argue about the temperature here in our labs. With PollyBot we could easily take a poll in Microsoft Teams to determine whether the thermostat needs to be turned up, down, or left alone. Fortunately, in the DC labs, where the subsequent review update was conducted, lab temperature is never open to discussion because it’s beyond human knowledge; it varies according to some cosmic direction.
T-Bot, once a feature of Microsoft Teams, has been removed and WhoBot Has been replaced with a /who command. If you ask /who a question about a person or if you ask about a specific subject, the bot will surface the person for whom you’re looking, or subject matter experts in your organization who can help you find more information. You can also click on someone’s profile and see where he or she sits on your company’s org chart.
Microsoft Teams is included in Office 365 Business Essentials, Business Premium, or Enterprise E1, E3, and E5 plan accounts. You can now download the free version of Microsoft Teams as a standalone app, or if you’ll always need to purchase it as part of a new office 365 Business account. While you can download a free version of the Microsoft Teams app without having Office 365, you won’t get full functionality. As previously mentioned, Microsoft Teams has integrated with more than 100 partners, including Asana, HootSuite, and Zendesk. It is built with an open application programming interface (API), which means your company’s developers can plug your existing apps into Microsoft Teams to create similar embedded interactions.
Microsoft is also encouraging developers to create business-specific experiences and customizations for Teams. This is a dramatic departure from the other newcomer to the space Workplace by Facebook, which only connects with Google G Suite, Okta, OneLogin, Ping, and Microsoft Azure Active Directory (AD). Although we generally enjoyed the group dynamic delivered in Workplace, we found it to be severely lacking in the group collaboration functionality that makes Microsoft Teams so dynamic.
Microsoft Teams is a game changer for any organization that would like its employees to spend the majority of their time in or near the app. If PCMag were to plug our content management system (CMS) into the Microsoft Teams interface (which is possible, by the way), then there would be very little reason for me to ever leave Microsoft Teams throughout the day. I assume an Edge plug-in will become available within the next year, which means that you’ll never have to leave Microsoft Teams to use a web browser. There is no indication that this integration is in the works, but it seems like a no-brainer. Today, instead of Edge, you can plug in specific websites you’d like to navigate within the context of a channel. For example, you can add Bing to a channel to enable in-channel web searches. This is a solid option for extracurricular Microsoft Teams usage, but an inevitable Edge integration would be ideal. If it does come to fruition, Microsoft Teams will function almost like Windows-within-Windows.
An integration with Windows’ voice assistant, if it happens, will bring Microsoft Teams to a different level. You’ll be able to launch video calls without pressing a button. You’ll be able to pull up a PowerPoint presentation, send it to your boss via a chat message, then create a meme that says something like “Too easy!” without ever having to touch your laptop. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As of today you still can’t even create a GIF using a Giphy shortcut the way you can in Slack. Microsoft Teams is incredible, but it’s still in its infancy.
The Bottom Line
As a VoIP-centric cloud PBX, Microsoft Teams is functional, but it has a long way to go before it can compete with either of our Editors’ Choice winners in that category, AT&T Collaborate and RingCentral Office. When you purchase a PBX-oriented communications solution, those two and similar players, like Vonage, offer the features you’re likely looking for—managed voicemail, IVR, and calling center features to name a few.
Then again, the way people communicate is evolving. If your business uses voice mostly as an extension of collaboration efforts, at least internally, then combining that capability with a team collaboration tool might make a lot of sense. You’re getting more of the features you want and you’re only paying for one service rather than two. In that sense, Microsoft Teams might be more similar to VoIP competitor Dialpad, which focuses more on the collaboration capabilities of its softphone client than it does on straight VoIP features.
If you’re primarily looking for a team collaboration platform rather than voice, however, then it’s clear that HipChat and Slack are about to have some serious competition. Microsoft Teams is capable, flexible, and enjoyable to use. Unfortunately, Microsoft Teams comes with one humongous caveat: Only organizations that are heavily invested in the Microsoft ecosystem will use Microsoft Teams at full efficiency. If you’re a company invested in Google Drive or if you’re on team Zoho, then Microsoft Teams won’t really appeal to you in the same way it will to Microsoft Office 365 power users.
That said, I predict companies will make the switch to Office 365 in order to take advantage of Microsoft Teams’ impeccable organization and connectivity. The ability to review and approve documents within a video call means that teams can essentially remove in-person meetings from the collaboration equation. The same can be said for its third-party integrations: Zendesk reps can answer customer service tickets, Asana team members can delegate tasks, and analytics teams can pivot strategy as Power BI dashboards update in real-time—all from within Microsoft Teams.
Microsoft couldn’t have created Microsoft Teams without the blueprint created by Editors’ Choice winners HipChat and Slack. Those two services already have wide adoption, and Slack in particular has a strong hold on the mindshare of the technoscenti at the moment. It’s unclear to what extent Microsoft Teams can steal customers from these two early movers. But even if Microsoft Teams only makes inroads among Office 365 users, it’s sure be a big success, and it wins an Editors’ Choice for collaboration services.