Review: Microsoft Teams tries to do Slack one better

Microsoft is now offering the beta of Teams, its new group communications tool, which promises a new level of productivity for Office.

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Office integration

Teams is part of Microsoft Office, so we expected it would integrate well with the suite. We were disappointed -- it is rather clunky.

We were hoping that Teams would make it easy for groups to do collaborative editing of Word, Excel and other Office files. It doesn't. When viewing a Word file from inside Teams, you are only given a snapshot image in a preview window which you can zoom in on. In our tests, it dramatically oversized the text -- it was so big, it looked like a large-print book on steroids.

To edit the file, follow a link, or even just copy a line of text, you must open that file in Word, either on the desktop or online; it will then save back to Teams. When we tried this, we found that even this process wasn't seamless -- when opening files in the desktop version of Word, we had to click through a virus warning dialog. (Hopefully, that will be fixed when the application is past its beta phase.)

Microsoft Teams warning

Teams doesn’t integrate well with Office -- you must often open files externally, and that can take more than a couple clicks. (Hopefully, the error message will disappear with the shipping version of Teams.)

Excel integration is slightly better. In the Teams preview window, you can navigate between sheets and copy numbers from cells. But to edit data, modify a graph or a view an equation, you'll have to launch the file in the desktop or online version of Excel.

Integration with PowerPoint is similarly underwhelming. You can preview the presentation in Teams and navigate through slides, but for any type of interaction you'll have to launch the full PowerPoint app.

One big frustration we ran into while collaborating on this review using Word was that adding comments using Word's review features is completely separated from Teams -- when you work with a file, you must launch it into the full version of Word and view the comments there. But since, as we previously mentioned, you can also make comments to files from inside Teams, every file can have two strings of comments, separate from one another -- one in Teams and the other inside the document itself (which can't be seen in Teams). This can lead to a great deal of confusion -- when discussing edits, should that be done in the Teams chat, or inside the document? We worked around the problem by sharing edits only in the files themselves using Word.

In short, Teams and Office seem to be function as entirely separate applications, which we found very surprising. Oddly, Teams seems to work better with third-party services than with Office, as we'll explain in the following section.

Third-party integration

Once upon a time, companies relied only on Microsoft software for their work. Today, even the most Microsoft-centric businesses work with other software -- notably, web-based services and apps. So how well does Teams play with third-party software and services?

There are three ways to integrate external services in Teams: Connectors, Bots and Tabs. Though some of these are of limited utility in the beta, we generally applaud Microsoft for the effort it's made to offer options for third-party integration.

Connectors provide a simple way to integrate external service alerts into the group conversation. Want your marketing team to keep on top of web traffic metrics? The Google Analytics connector can automatically post reports.

Developers will be pleased to see that the essentials are all there. The GitHub connector will automatically announce code repository notifications, like pull requests and new issues. Connectors for Jenkins and other continuous integration services can notify the whole channel when a build is breaking.

We tested a few of these connectors, including those for Google Analytics, GitHub and Bitbucket. They were simple, easy to set up, and functional. You choose a service and are prompted to log into that external account and give permission for Teams to access your data. After a few quick settings on what type of alerts you want to receive, you'll see them start to pop up in conversations. We ran into one small bug when a connector double-posted an alert, but the fault likely lay with the vendor.

The ecosystem for these third-party connectors is strong, and we expect it to thrive further as the product matures. By Teams' full release in early 2017, Microsoft has promised integration with at least 150 partners.

MIcrosoft Teams bitbucket

Teams’ Connectors allow you to integrate alerts from external services. Pictured here is Atlassian’s Bitbucket, which will notify a team when updates are made to the code repository.

Bots are one of things that many people love about Slack. One of our favorite Slack bots is "Polly the poll bot," which allows people to vote on issues ranging from choosing a software vendor to "What's for lunch?" Teams does feel a bit empty without these digital companions to spice up the conversation.

But fear not -- although bots were not yet available at the time of this review, Teams will leverage Microsoft's existing Bot Framework, so there should be plenty of options as soon as the feature is enabled. Like most of the other tech giants, Microsoft is investing heavily in artificial intelligence and bots (see the recent announcement of the Bot Service on their Azure cloud platform and the partnership with OpenAI). This means Teams will likely allow you to leverage cutting-edge AI, increasing productivity (and hopefully not stealing your job).

As for Tabs, this feature allows you to pin important files for quick viewing. Currently, this is restricted to Office files, and as we lamented before, can lead to more confusion than convenience.

Tabs for third-party files are promised in the full release of Teams. While bots and connectors may be able to post alerts and trigger actions from chat, tabs give an (albeit stripped down) interface to directly interact with files and external services. For example, while the GitHub connector will tell you when code has changed, the GitHub tab would (hopefully) allow you to view the actual changes inside of Teams, without having to switch to the browser and log into GitHub.

Enterprise suitability

No surprise: Microsoft has made sure that Teams will play well in enterprises. One killer feature for this market is support for compliance standards, encryption and other security measures that are a requirement for enterprises and highly regulated industries. For example, Teams is HIPAA compliant, while Slack is not, so if you're a healthcare company it's clear you'll want Teams rather than Slack.

For the admins out there, all the usual features you'd expect are present. You can configure access levels for teams and channels, control which external services can be integrated, and set up a content filter to keep things work-safe.

Bottom line

There's a lot to like in Teams -- and a lot that still needs work.

On the plus side, the rich messaging features make it simple for groups to communicate with one another. It's also easy to schedule meetings, and the video chat features are extremely useful. It's great that groups can share files with one another without going through the interface headache known as SharePoint, even though Teams' file-sharing can be confusing. And the third-party integrations hold out a great deal of promise in a world in which companies use many different services that often don't speak to one another, let alone their users. Teams could conceivably become a kind of central command for integrating all your services.

But there are plenty of problems as well. The first is the most basic: It's currently only for those who subscribe to the Business and Enterprise versions of Office 365, which leaves out a good chunk of the world. So it's not going to rival Slack, which has a free option that is open to everyone.

Teams is also stuffed with too many features that don't always work well together. Its interface can be disorienting and make it difficult, for example, to find that one chat that had an important piece of information you wanted. Even something as simple as finding a file can be hard to do because different files are found on different parts of the program. The sheer busy-ness of the interface is off-putting, and a contrast to Slack's stripped-down look.

The extremely poor integration with Office is another big drawback. There needs to be direct links between Office and Teams, and Teams needs to improve the way people can work on files together.

All that being said, there's a lot of promise here -- a promise which, hopefully, could be fulfilled when the final version ships in March 2017. If Microsoft can fix the interface issues and make it play well with Office, it may have a winner on its hands. If not, we don't expect it to be a Slack slayer.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld and the author of more than 45 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O'Reilly, 2012) and How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Gabe Gralla is a freelance web developer and tech consultant. He works with a wide variety of clients, ranging from the startup world to the enterprise.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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