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Microsoft faces hurdles in selling Teams to first-line workers

Microsoft is a long way from convincing businesses with first-line workforces to buy the collaboration app Microsoft Teams, analysts said.

Microsoft has launched a public relations campaign to convince businesses that its Teams collaboration app is suitable for use by so-called first-line workers. At stake is a significant expansion of Teams into the lives of workers ranging from retail associates to housekeepers to factory hands.

Success will depend on how well the tech giant develops more industry-specific features and recruits additional hardware partners. Both are needed to drive  Microsoft Teams into first-line segments of the workforce, industry analysts said.

"We should not be impressed by a press release," said Michael Finneran, principal at dBrn Associates Inc. "And at this point what they have is a press release."

The capabilities Microsoft is adding to Teams are nothing new, Finneran said. The same kinds of features are already available to first-line workers today from established technology vendors like Motorola Solutions and Spectralink, as well as from numerous startups with apps for specific industries.

What's more, Microsoft has so far discussed first-line workers in broad terms. But nurses, field technicians, and workers on the floor of a manufacturing plant have very different technology needs. The company won't be taken seriously by many potential customers until it demonstrates an understanding of their industry.

Microsoft will also need hardware partners. Retail sales associates and warehouse workers typically use shared mobile devices with unique features and strict access controls. But many of Microsoft's features for first-line workers seem to require businesses to let employees use personal smartphones at work.

Microsoft has only just begun to build that hardware ecosystem. Samsung announced this month it would launch a smartphone for first-line workers that will come pre-integrated with a new walkie-talkie feature in Teams. The device, the Galaxy XCover Pro, will launch sometime in the first half of 2020.

Similarly, Microsoft is still in the early stages of rolling out many of the features for first-line workers that its marketing department has hyped in blogs and press releases. 

Some of the newest features won't launch for months or longer -- and when they do hit the market, they'll only be available in preview. Technology released in preview mode is in the early stages of development. Large organizations often have policies against using software before it passes beta testing.

For example, a walkie-talkie feature in Teams that drew headlines earlier this month won't be available until mid-2020. Even then, it will only ship to select users in a private preview. Several other device-related Teams features will launch in a public showing. Those capabilities include SMS sign-in, shared device sign-out and a portal for managing devices.

Nevertheless, Microsoft could succeed in getting first-line workers to use Teams in the long run, analysts said. The company has billions of dollars to spend and already has a foot in the door with most enterprises in the world.

"Microsoft can get there if they want to, but they ain't getting there without really putting their nose to the grindstone," Finneran said.

Microsoft said in a statement that it has already made progress in getting companies with first-line workers to use Teams. The businesses include plumbing supply firm Ferguson and retailers Ikea and Mattress Firm.

"These are just a few of the companies on the leading edge of involving the first-line workforce in digital transformation," Microsoft said. It did not provide details on how those companies' employees were using Teams.

Microsoft's broad software portfolio will give the company a leg up. Beyond Teams, Microsoft can offer customers a productivity suite, a customer relationship management app and platforms for e-commerce and internet of things (IoT) projects.

"Microsoft is just able to bring more of the pieces to the solution than a lot of its competitors," said Rob Arnold, analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

And Microsoft has a clear financial incentive to follow through on its rhetoric.

So-called knowledge workers -- the kind of desk-based employees who use software like Microsoft Office -- represent only 15% to 25% of the U.S. workforce. Worldwide, the percentage falls to 10% to 15%, according to calculations by PKE Consulting LLC.

The rest of the workforce comprises service workers, like bank tellers, nurses, UPS drivers, waiters and maids.

Those kinds of workers haven't used collaboration apps like Teams in the past. But Microsoft could significantly increase its market footprint if it convinces them to use Teams in the future, said Raúl Castañón-Martinez, analyst at 451 Research.

"I think they are definitely very serious about going after that segment," he said.

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