Salesforce and Microsoft have an uphill battle to own collaboration

Integrations with smaller firms are key to both companies' plans. Those same upstarts don't want Slack and Teams to dominate the world of digital work.

Salesforce and Microsoft have an uphill battle to own collaboration

Both Salesforce and Microsoft aim to embody the future of work.

Photo: Austin Distel/Unsplash

Two companies are battling to provide the de facto collaboration platform for enterprises: Salesforce and Microsoft are intent on expanding beyond quick ways to send messages to a colleague into systems that support the bulk of everyday work in an organization.

But increasingly, the very application providers those companies are courting to add functions within Slack and Teams are building productivity and social features into their own apps. And that poses a key challenge to the collaboration giants' vision of this unfolding market.

By 2025, as many as 65% of software providers will offer some version of collaboration or social tools, according to Gartner. By adding those features, providers are encouraging users to conduct more work within those applications. And that poses a quandary for Microsoft, which has long offered team-productivity products, and Salesforce, which is in the process of absorbing Slack: What happens if customers are increasingly spending time away from the platforms the two companies are trying to market as the prime place for collaboration?

Slack and Microsoft have been racing to build low-code or no-code tools to automate workflows, which in theory reduce the need to pop out of the chat environment into other apps. But unless those tools become significantly more powerful, Slack and Teams risk becoming simple pipes for messages from more powerful, dedicated-purpose apps that prompt workers to leave the collaboration space and do work elsewhere.

Both Slack and Teams are about "the superficial work," said Deidre Paknad, the CEO of Workboard, a provider of tools to help teams align on goals. (Workboard counts Microsoft as an investor.) "If you take the application providers out … there is nothing novel there."

That is the exact scenario both Microsoft and Salesforce want to avoid. The companies are striving to allow users to manage more and more of their daily workflow within Teams and Slack. In addition to their workflow tools, they're offering ever more sophisticated webhooks and APIs to persuade software developers to build streamlined versions of their apps that run within Slack and Teams. Slack has more than 2,400 in its App Directory, and Microsoft has 911 in AppSource.

Users "don't want to leave their home of Teams," said Nicole Herskowitz, Microsoft's general manager for the product. Instead, "they are wanting to have these integrated experiences."

If you ask the CEOs of the vendors providing some of the most widely-used collaboration software, however, such a future is nothing more than a pipe dream.

"Those are communication applications. They are increasingly trying to do more pieces of work in those applications, but they are not the default work application," said Atlassian co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes. "It's a nice marketing spin for them, but realistically that's bullshit. That's not what actually happens."

Salesforce, which expects to close its acquisition of Slack by the end of July, did not respond to an emailed inquiry.

Redmond's battle to lose

Microsoft is widely regarded as the leader in the ongoing battle to own daily work. CEO Satya Nadella even revamped the company's mission around the idea that it will "empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more."

But it's also shown its weakness several times. The Yammer acquisition was a bust. SharePoint never scaled to become the collaboration platform that Microsoft intended. And Skype lost its spot as the default video chat tool, a missed opportunity on which Zoom gleefully capitalized. (To be fair, Salesforce also failed with Chatter, a Yammer clone that never caught on.)

Microsoft has a much better shot with Teams, which now has over 145 million users. But now it has to deal with the ballooning use of distinct applications within enterprises. Everything from Asana to HelloSign to Smartsheet has reported a work-from-home surge.

"Some of those applications are growing at paces I've never seen," David Politis, the CEO of app monitoring firm BetterCloud, told Protocol. He believes that growth will require Microsoft and Salesforce to abandon a strategy of "forcing everyone into a single platform. The days of that, it's factual that they are over."

That growth in usage is why the delicate dance between platform providers and application vendors risks growing more contentious.

"At the moment, it's pretty symbiotic. They both have to exist," said Workboard's Paknad. But if Microsoft alienates app developers out of Teams by trying to build too much in, it could put consumption at risk, she added.

That's particularly true as smaller vendors gain success focusing on specific industries or functions, creating features that will be difficult for the behemoths like Microsoft to create on their own. Providers like Chorus.ai are able to get richer data about specific workflows, which means their algorithms will in theory gain better and better performance over time.

Companies like Salesforce helped build a "multitrillion-dollar industry by basically taking form fields and moving them on to the web. That is child's play compared to what is coming next," said Gordon Ritter, the co-founder of Emergence Capital and an early investor in Zoom and Salesforce. "Those software players better really reimagine and rearchitect their systems or else they are going to get left behind by the new players that have access to the granular data."

Integration is also a difficult and expensive endeavor. Microsoft and Slack have an advantage there, in that most app developers aren't likely to build bots or integrations for more than a couple of workplace collaboration platforms.

But the sheer number of apps in a directory doesn't tell you how deep those integrations go. And that's a crucial question in figuring out whether a worker will stay in Slack or Teams or bounce out to a specific app.

HelloSign, for example, integrates with both Teams and Slack. But Chief Operating Officer Whitney Bouck says those partnerships aren't robust enough right now to keep users exclusively in those platforms.

"The integrations don't fully exist to let people do everything in one place," she said.

Take Atlassian, for example. While its Trello service has relative full functionality within Teams, it's a different story for Jira. In Teams, according to product head Steve Goldsmith, Atlassian's flagship product for developers only has surface-level functionality, meaning it's impossible to actually use the application as intended within the platform. Instead, Atlassian views its Jira integration in Teams as a way for the broader cohort to get updates on what is going on within the native app.

It gives "an ambient awareness" of what's happening, said Goldsmith. "It's not deep work, not super complicated manipulation of data structures. They are always the quick updates."

'It's like a bunch of raindrops'

Still, that's the goal with Salesforce's purchase of Slack: get onto every desktop within the enterprise and become the main collaboration platform across the company. Right now, Salesforce has apps for almost every department of a business, but it doesn't have one app everyone uses.

The benefits would be immense. Slack's many integrations could give Salesforce insight into complex workflows that could eventually help it inject more automation or otherwise improve productivity. Achieving that vision, however, requires substantial engineering work, which is one reason why analysts and investors are still questioning the $27.7 billion deal. Salesforce shares remain lower than they were before the acquisition was announced in December.

Even as Slack moves quickly to make sure it can capture even more of the everyday activity within an enterprise, there are inevitably going to be areas that the software can't touch — at least, right now. A customer, for example, may use Asana or Trello to track tasks, Zoom for video communication and Ironclad for contract management — along with hundreds, if not thousands of other vendors.

The collaboration market "is really a whole lot of submarkets," said Gartner analyst Craig Roth. "It's more like a bunch of raindrops on the window and they start connecting up to form bigger blobs."

Microsoft is taking the same approach. Workboard, for example, has several key features that run seamlessly in Teams. Now, the two companies have started selling a joint product offering. Microsoft also has a close relationship with Adobe Sign, which has alleviated the immediate need for the company to build or purchase its own e-signature technology. And aspects of the tech giant's recently unveiled Viva product suite are, in part, based on information that flows from Zoom, Workday and SAP.

But even those arrangements will require significant engineering work to get to that holy grail of full functionality within a platform like Teams, experts say. It's one reason why Microsoft is pitching Teams as providing the social and collaboration features for those third-party applications.

"Our partners want to leverage that versus building it themselves," Herskowitz said.

It may be that the lofty vision of being the all-day, all-in-one enterprise app proves to just be marketing hype. And it may also be enough for Slack and Teams to be the preferred point of integration for disparate workplace apps.

But it's clear Microsoft and Salesforce have grander ambitions for those products, and equally clear that application providers see one all-encompassing collaboration platform as an impossible goal.

The question now becomes how long Microsoft and Salesforce will stay willing to meet customers where they are — or, by leveraging their popular apps, drag them to their preferred terrain.


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