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Team chat apps tap into enterprises, challenge UC clients

Enterprises are starting to adopt business chat apps, as they incorporate more robust features. The line is blurring between these apps and more established UC platforms.

Slack, the popular team chat application, has certainly taken the business world by storm. At last count, in May,...

Slack boasted more than 3 million daily active users, up from 2.3 million users in February. Slack has more than 900,000 paid accounts and a valuation that grew from $250 million in 2014 to nearly $4 billion by mid-2016, according to several news reports.

A recent Nemertes Research study of 40 end-user organizations bolsters the Slack story. The study found 33% of participants are using team chat apps, up from just 2.4% in 2015. Nearly 70% of the team chat adopters are using Slack, while 30% are using Cisco Spark and 2% are using other apps.

As team chat apps gain a foothold in the enterprise, IT leaders struggle with how these apps fit into an overall communication and collaboration environment. Do the apps replace existing or planned unified communications (UC) clients, or do they augment them?

Most users see team chat as augmenting other UC applications. But the instant messaging within team chat apps can replace IM features in most UC platforms. However, many team chat apps typically lack video chat, screen sharing and the ability to make voice calls to phones.

Team messaging apps starting to mature

Despite their limitations, the future direction of team chat apps, such as Slack and Atlassian's HipChat, is muddying the collaboration waters.

In early 2015, for example, Slack acquired Screenhero, a WebRTC-based screen-sharing app that could allow Slack to offer features found in web conferencing apps, such as GoToMeeting, WebEx and Zoom. In June 2016, Slack added voice calls to its dedicated apps or via WebRTC for users running Slack on Google Chrome. Last year, Atlassian acquired Jitsi, another WebRTC-based app, and recently launched group video calling in HipChat.

At the same time, vendors like Fuze and Zoom are adding team chat features to their conferencing apps, continuing to blur the lines between UC clients and team chat applications. Additionally, apps like Slack enable video conferencing integrations with vendors like Blue Jeans, Google and Vidyo, enabling users to launch a Slack video chat from within a channel.

Protecting information and the network

UC vendors are not waiting around to be overtaken by Slack.

With team chat apps, some challenges include information protection, network impact and integration with existing frameworks.

Cisco is pushing its own team chat app, Spark, and differentiating it via its security model and ability to integrate with existing Cisco UC deployments and WebEx. RingCentral purchased Glip and integrated it with its unified communications as a service offering to mate team chat and UC. Unify Circuit, one of the first enterprise team chat apps, also provides voice, video and screen-sharing integration. 

For larger companies that typically position their communications strategies on a single platform provider -- like Avaya, Cisco and Microsoft -- Slack and its competitors threaten disruption. Considering the freemium, software-as-a-service-based delivery model, individuals or departments can easily launch a team chat app outside IT's domain, creating headaches for those people responsible for information protection and network management.

Imagine this IT nightmare: Hundreds of team chat users conducting video chats, and IT has no way to control network impact.

Empower real-time collaboration among virtual teams

Among early adopters of team chat apps, Nemertes found 42% have lines of business pay for the service, but IT is largely responsible for supporting the apps.

Enterprises using or evaluating team chat applications must carefully weigh the pros and cons. While the apps empower real-time collaboration among virtual and distributed teams, some challenges include information protection, network impact and integration with existing applications. 

There's no single right answer to the question of whether or not team chat apps will replace UC clients. But as team chat apps add UC features and integrate with existing UC platforms -- while, at the same time, UC platforms add team chat functionality -- it's likely the line between team chat and UC will continue to blur.

Next Steps

Are team collaboration applications right for your organization?

Slack gains enterprise momentum

New habits reshape workplace collaboration

This was last published in September 2016

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