Once upon a time if you wanted employees to collaborate you'd probably encourage them to use Internet Relay Chat (IRC). But about four years ago Slack appeared on the scene, and since then it's been eating IRC's lunch. That's because it's much easier to install, get up and running, and use than IRC, making it massively popular with nontechies. And thanks to a well-documented API it's easy to integrate with other programs and services. That means it's customizable and infinitely extensible, which makes it popular with developers.
But, ultimately, Slack is just a group communication tools, albeit a very nice one. And there are plenty of alternatives. In fact, many of the biggest players in the industry, from Microsoft to Google to Facebook are pushing their own tools and the number of available options is quickly growing.
One concern about Slack for many organizations is that Slack Technologies, the company behind the product, is a relatively new one with a product that is growing explosively. That kind of growth can be tricky to manage and attracts interest from companies on the acquisition trail. Slack is also cloud-based, which raises questions about availability as well as the privacy and security of your data.
That explains the popularity of HipChat as an alternative to Slack. HipChat is developed by Atlassian, an Australian company founded in 2002 that offers a range of other highly regarded products — most notably JIRA, an issue tracking product. "With Slack there is concern that you have a dependency on a company that may not always be around," says Adam Preset, Gartner's research director for digital workplace. "So you could look at HipChat, which is offered as a cloud service but which you can also operate yourself on premise. If you control the platform like that then arguably its more suitable for the most confidential information. There's no chance of leakage unless you are the ones that are culpable."
In some areas HipChat has a functional edge over Slack, too, Preset says. "It has tighter integration with issue trackers (such as JIRA), and Slack needs to add video capabilities to remain competitive with HipChat," he says.
Atlassian hopes to replicate the success of Slack with Stride, which follows the blueprint of its rival more closely than HipChat. Stride provides text, voice, video, file sharing and other workplace collaboration tools and was built from the ground up for corporate use. Similar to both Slack and HipChat, Stride is offered in a freemium model.
Both Slack and HipChat are proprietary products, and there's another closed source alternative that's worth mentioning: Ryver. What's particularly interesting about Ryver is that while the code is proprietary and runs in the cloud, the product is free (as in beer.) It offers similar functionality to the free version of Slack but without limiting the number of integrations that can be used (the free version of Slack has a limit of 10 app or service integrations) or the number of messages that can be searched (Slack limits this to the 10,000 most recent messages.)
Ryver offers paid deployment services and is also planning a paid enterprise version of the product in the future to generate revenue.
Free (as in beer) or not, proprietary code can be an issue for companies or individuals that prefer to use free (as in speech) open source software whenever possible. Collaboration tools are popular with developers, and the proprietary code issue can be particularly acute when it comes to choosing a collaboration tool to help develop open source software — primarily for ideological reasons, but for financial ones too.
The most promising Slack fighter on the scene is Microsoft Teams, a cloud-based, chat-centric app for group communication and collaboration that lets groups and subgroups create their own channels and work together using text chat, file sharing, calendaring, and voice and video chat.
Teams lets you use different tools for different kinds of communications: Threaded messaging for group conversations; private chats for more focused one-on-ones; and video and voice chat for more personal communication, including screen-sharing. A big plus is that it’s integrated with Office, which makes adding members easier than in some other collaboration apps. And it’s designed to scale with an enterprise, which some rivals don’t do as well. That said, being the relative newcomer on the block means there are still a few rough edges for Microsoft to sand down.
Microsoft is not the only tech bigwig getting in on the act. Cisco Spark is a cloud-based group messaging platform that also supports screen-sharing and video conferencing and it underpins Cisco’s digital whiteboard, Spark Board. Other entrants in the market include IBM’s Watson Workspaces, built with cognitive A.I. at its core, and budget business software vendor Zoho, which launched its Cliq team collaboration platform. And unified communications firm Ring Central added group chat with the acquisition of Glip in 2015.
Google, too, has plans in place to beef up its team collaboration credentials. Earlier this year it revealed intentions to separate its Hangouts video conferencing and messaging tool, Hangouts, into two standalone apps: Meet and Chat. While the Meet video app is generally available, with dedicated hardware launched in March, development around Chat is still underway. This should provide Google with a fully fledged group chat option as part of its G Suite portfolio, and advantage Microsoft currently has with Teams and Office 365.
Having access to the source code means that these three products can easily be modified or fixed, which should appeal to developers — a group of people who have the capability to work on the code and who, as mentioned earlier, have historically been keen users of collaboration tools.
But Jeffrey Hammond, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, questions whether developers care enough about having access to source code to ditch Slack or HipChat in favor of open source alternatives. "Developers are pragmatic and I can't see them abandoning Slack anytime soon," he says. "I don't see a lot of developers who are militant when it comes to open source. The only change I have seen (recently) is the aggressive adoption of HipChat."
One interesting question is whether there is really anything wrong with good old IRC that can't be fixed. Preset says that communications and collaboration trends tend to be cyclic, and that there will always be an interest in tried and tested solutions. "People forget they don't like email and go back to it. In the same way, IRC is a legitimate alternative to Slack."
A promising way forward, then, could be to take the best parts of IRC — the fact that it is widely used and that there are thousands of public channels that are potential sources of knowledge and advice about a huge range of topics — and make it more user friendly.
That's exactly what IRCCloud is trying to do. The company has developed a beefed-up IRC client that offers many of the features that drew people to products like Slack in the first place. It also offers companies the choice of their own private IRC server in the cloud, an on-premise IRC server if they are concerned about security or privacy in the cloud, or the ability to connect to public IRC servers.
The service has been designed to make setup and onboarding as easy as possible, according to Richard Jones, one of IRCCloud's founders and a former founder of music recommendation site Last.FM. "Slack got taken up because it is so easy to use. We've made IRCCloud so that onboarding people is also simple, and because IRCCloud is in the browser it means image uploads are simple, embedding content is simple and you can easily paste a link to a video and it will appear too."
One downside to traditional IRC is that when you are not connected to IRC you don’t get new messages. But IRCCloud, like Slack, sidesteps this issue, Jones says. "IRCCloud keeps your connection open so you don't miss any messages anymore," he explains. (In fact, only the paid versions of IRCCloud have this functionality. The free service offers a permanent connection for the first seven days and then only for two hours when users are inactive.)
What about integrations with other applications? "There may not be as many ready-made integrations available with IRCCloud as with Slack," Jones admits, "but because it is IRC-based you can always make an integration that will work," he says.
But, crucially, Jones believes that because of its venerable IRC roots IRCCloud doesn't just mimic Slack – it goes beyond it. "With IRC there are many well-known public channels, so if you want help with something there are hundreds of people who may be able to help you. Closed systems like Slack or HipChat are much more private communities, so you don't get that," he says. Yet, ironically, while IRCCloud is open to public channels, the backend code for the platform is not open source.
With Slack and an increasing number of Slack alternatives on the market, how can an organization benefit from this plethora of choice? Gartner's Preset points out that there's no reason for an organization to restrict themselves to a single solution rather than using two or more collaboration tools for different teams with different needs. "There is often a desire to get the same thing for everyone, but there is no need to be homogenous," he concludes.