7 top Slack alternatives for 2019

While it was Slack that kickstarted the business chat market five years ago, other options might be better suited for some companies. Here’s a look at seven Slack rivals, from big players like Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts to lesser-knowns like Mattermost and Symphony.

team collaboration network apps online technology hands reaching
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Slack's launch in 2014 helped ignite demand for chat-based collaboration tools in the workplace, and, in turn, paved the way for a range of team messaging offerings that now provide a simple and effective alternative to email. 

The upstart has proved popular since its launch, attracting 10 million daily users. The secret to its success? A user-friendly and intuitive interface that encourages quick communication between team members, whether they’re in the same office or many time zones apart.

More and more, today’s collaboration tools serve as the hub for an increasingly digital office, where real-time, synchronous conversations suit the ad-hoc and informal discussions scattered teams use to collaborate on projects.

But it is not just about chat. The ability to hook into other applications has become fundamental to team chat apps, allowing them to evolve and grow beyond their original mission.

Not surprisingly, a variety of software vendors, from productivity software vendors to unified communications firms and smaller startups with standalone apps, rushed to create their own tools. The result is a fast-growing market, now worth $3.5 billion globally, and a range of options that suit the needs of different customers.

“Almost every company in the world with over 1,000 employees has at least two or three messaging apps co-existing alongside each other,” said Tom Hadfield, CEO of Mio, a provider of software that enables interoperability between chat apps. “The fragmentation of enterprise messaging is often driven by mergers and acquisitions, transitions from legacy systems, or simply accommodating engineering teams who love Slack.”

What tools a company adopts often depends on their individual needs. “There are dozens of alternatives to Slack and Teams, and which [of them] might be useful will depend on how your team works and whether you need internal or external collaboration, for example,” said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight.

“Some come from a pure messaging perspective, while others emphasize task-based working, or integration and bots to take a more 'digital workplace' approach," she said.

Ashenden agreed with Hadfield that companies often adopt a variety of tools. “As much as organizations will want to standardize on one tool – to make sure everyone is working together, to minimize complexity and for compliance/governance/management reasons etc – in practice, it seems unlikely that we’ll fully get away from this fragmentation because individuals now have the power to choose their own technology," she said.

With that in mind, here are some of the various enterprise options available, with a look at what kind of companies they’re best suited for. 

Microsoft Teams

It is a testament to Slack's appeal that Microsoft has invested so heavily in its rival app, Teams. 

Workplace productivity is at the heart of Microsoft's business, and there was little surprise that - after rumors it would acquire Slack - the Redmond firm built its own messaging app. Teams launched in 2017 following a beta trial with customers, and has since replaced Skype for Business Online as the main communication platform in its Office 365 portfolio. 

Microsoft Teams general channel Jonathan Hassell / IDG

The main strength of Teams is deep integration with other Office tools, with a largely document-centric approach to collaboration. Colleagues can edit Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and other files in real-time from directly within Teams, which also syncs with Calendar and allows users to quickly jump into video and voice calls.

Microsoft has continued to rapidly build out Teams over the past two years. It now offers, for instance, AI features such as automated transcription of conversations and background blur. The app has also been tailored for use in healthcare and education sectors as well as for “first-line” workers such as retail staff. 

While Teams arguably lacks the user-friendliness of Slack and its wide range of third-party integrations, it’s clear that Microsoft is the major challenger to Slack. More than 500,000 Office 365 business customers have already deployed Teams, according to Microsoft. Indeed, some claim it is now the most widely deployed team chat app, largely thanks to its inclusion in Microsoft’s broader office productivity package. It remains unclear, however, how many are individuals actually use the app on a regular basis; Microsoft doesn’t break out daily active user numbers. 

Like Slack, Microsoft offers a free version of Teams, but most are likely to access the app through Office 365 Business Essentials and Premium subscriptions.

Best for: Microsoft’s 180 million Office 365 users.

Workplace by Facebook

Facebook takes a different approach to team collaboration, essentially refitting its social network for a business audience. In many cases, it serves primarily as an intranet and is often deployed company-wide. However, it contains many of the same core features offered by rivals, including group discussion, bots and integration with more than 50 third-party apps. Zoom, Survey Monkey and Smartsheet can be used within Workplace, so Facebook clearly wants to move users beyond the platform’s social media foundation.

facebook workplace chat Facebook

Workplace will be familiar to anyone who uses the consumer version of Facebook.

One of the major differences between Workplace and Slack involves the intended audience. While Slack is targeted at knowledge workers, Facebook’s tool is built more for frontline workers such as those in retail. A key advantage: most users will already know their way around basic features such as the News Feed and Work Chat, (which is essentially the business version of Facebook Messenger). This has led to numerous large deployments to date, despite its parent company’s travails, and the app now has some 2 million users.

Workplace offers a free tier, with a more feature-rich service priced at $3 per user/month. It is also free for non-profits and staffers at educational institutions. 

Best for: Organizations with large numbers of front-line workers, and those that want a tool employees are already familiar with.

Google Hangouts Chat

Google’s Hangouts Chat and its video app, Meet, were introduced in 2018, replacing the Hangouts tool that was available in G Suite.

Hangouts Chat has many features Slack users will recognize, including @mentions, direct and group messages and file sharing, along with differences such as the threaded conversations its Rooms. Threaded conversations are the equivalent of Slack's channels.

group chat services google hangouts chat Google

Available for G Suite customers, Chat is – not surprisingly – integrated with Google’s other productivity applications such as Docs and Sheets, and it connects with the Meet and Voice communication apps. Google also announced last month that Hangouts Chat will be accessible directly from within its Gmail email client. It has a simple and easy-to-understand user interface, though is less feature-rich than Teams or Slack.

Chat supports a range of bots, including a Google Drive bot that alerts users when files are shared with them. It also makes use of Google’s AI know-how, with the Smart Reply prediction feature in Gmail now available in Chat.

Hangouts Chat is available via G Suite subscriptions.

Best for: Google’s 5 million G Suite subscribers, and those that are wary of a wholesale switch from email to team chat.

Mattermost

While it is difficult to stand out in a competitive market, Mattermost has managed to carve out a niche as an open-source platform that businesses can install on their own servers. 

Although some of the larger players have added compliance certification (such as for FedRAMP and HIPPA), the ability to retain full control over data appeals to organizations in heavily regulated industries – especially those wary of entrusting sensitive information to public cloud providers.

This approach appears to have been successful thus far. Mattermost recently raised $20 million in funding and claims to have more than 10,000 downloads a month. The company also boasts that its app is used in a range of highly regulated industries, including “top banks, internet companies, U.S. federal agencies…and thousands of others across public sector, defense, online services and manufacturing industries.” 

Mattermost app Mattermost

Mattermost offers a free trial download, with Enterprise E10 for smaller businesses costing $3.25 per user/month, and an E20 license for larger customers at $8.50 per user/month.

Other open-source alternatives include Zulip and Rock.Chat.

Best for: Security-conscious organizations in highly regulated industries.

Cisco Webex Teams

Initially launched as Cisco Spark, Webex Teams was pulled into Cisco's suite of unified communications products in 2018. The rebranding of Spark signaled more than a name change, said Cisco; it also meant better integration with the company’s Webex video conferencing software. It is also possible to make calls from Webex Teams using the cloud PBX technology Cisco gained access to with its BroadCloud acquisition in 2018. 

cisco webex board whiteboard display Cisco

Webex Teams also integrates directly with Cisco’s Webex Boards – a digital whiteboard that helps users brainstorm ideas – and can be used to co-edit Microsoft OneDrive and SharePoint Online files in real time. 

Webex Teams is available as part of Webex subscriptions.

Best for: Organizations that want to get the most of their existing Cisco Webex investments.

Zoho Cliq

Zoho’s main focus is to provide business apps such as CRM, business intelligence and a wide range of productivity tools at a fraction of the cost of premium providers. This  same approach is used by its team chat tool, Cliq. It’s available for $1 per user/month when deployed to more than 500 users, or $3 per user/month for up to 10 users. (A free version of Cliq with limited functionality is also available.)

Cliq group chat Cliq

Zoho's Cliq allows for group chat in channels.

That’s not to say Cliq lacks the capabilities found in other team chat tools. In fact, it has an impressive array of features, with multi-team chat, file sharing, video and audio calls, and shared channels for communication with external organizations.

Cliq also connects with Zoho’s various office and business apps, though it has a more limited range of third-party integrations compared with pricier rivals.

The free version of Cliq is bundled with Zoho Workplace subscriptions, while the full-featured tool is included in the company’s more comprehensive Zoho One suite.

Best for: Budget-conscious organizations that want a straightforward team chat experience.

Symphony

Symphony regulation compliance Symphony

Symphony’s secure messaging and collaboration platform started life as an in-house chat tool at Goldman Sachs, providing secure communications between employees and allowing them to easily share sensitive documents.

According to CEO David Gurle, the company has other industry verticals in it its sights, but the technology is clearly aimed at addressing the data security demands of Wall Street firms. Symphony counts Citi, HSBC, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley among its 310 financial services customers. 

End-to-end encryption is at the core of Symphony, along with the usual team chat, voice and video calls, third-party apps, bots and more. Additional security measures include customer-owned encryption keys and encrypted search.

Best for: Financial services firms and any business with high security demands.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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