Slack adds major new voice-calling feature, more perks on the way

screen shot 2016 02 23 at 5.22.57 pm

Slack's video calling interface

Credit: Slack

Could the new features help collaboration at work or cause more confusion?

The work collaboration app Slack just got a little more useful.

Just today, the company started to roll-out of a new voice calling feature, which the company announced yesterday. It's the result of snapping up the voice, video, and scree-share company Screenhero a bit over a year ago.

I tested the new feature with some colleagues and friends, and it works like a charm -- I had no problems. It might not be the be-all and end-all of voice communication (you can’t even leave a message) but it's a step in the right direction.

The first thing to know is that it works more like Skype in that you click an icon to chat by voice, and up pops a dialog box to initiate the call. When you talk, you need to use the microphone in your laptop or a headset. (The Slack app on mobile doesn’t support it yet, and neither does the Web app running in a browser.) If you are having a direct message discussion in Slack, you can quickly call the person by clicking the phone icon; in a channel, you can start a group call. Note that, for the group calling feature to work or to add people to a private call, you need to be using the premium version.

Group chats only work for 15 people at a time, and voice calling is fairly limited and wonky. You can call someone who doesn’t appear to be online; it just rings for 30 seconds until the person answers. There is no way to leave a voice message (although I suppose you can type a message) or call someone with Do Not Disturb enabled.

It’s not a fair comparison, but with something like Google Voice, there’s a ton of features related to telecommunications like recording a call and transcribing voicemails that are not available on Slack. This is a beta feature, so I imagine they will improve it as they see people using it.

And, this is just the start of a long journey toward making Slack a central hub of all business communication. Eventually, they will add video calling and video chats, screen sharing (ala Google Hangouts) and mobile support through the iOS and Android apps, according to company reps. If voice calling really takes off, it makes sense to add additional features like transcription and voicemail. It’s even possible, if a company really standardizes on Slack, that it could replace Skype and Google Hangouts.

What’s left after that? I’m really expecting Slack to add document editing and file storage soon ala Box.net. It makes perfect sense. We’re talking about a business plan, might as well work on it together, ala Google Docs or Dropbox Paper. If we’re exchanging files and photos, might as well figure out a way to store them on Slack and sync to the desktop. The potential is great for extending this far beyond group chats, which is why Slack racked up a $1B valuation so quickly.

My only question is, will people really use the voice call feature? The rise of collaborative environments like Fleep, Yammer, Jive and others is really about textual communication as a shortcut in business. We want to know what people are talking about and join in on the discussion. Voice, for all of its benefits in clarify issues and building relationships, is not as traceable. You can't quickly see that one department had a call with another and what they talked about. There’s no archive. There’s also no exposure on a central hub that’s easy to scan and monitor.

The real power of Slack is that it doesn’t focus on calling and video. We’ll see if these new features create more collaboration...or more confusion.

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