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How Microsoft can win the upcoming collaboration wars

How Microsoft can win the upcoming collaboration wars

Its product lineup is confusing at best, but it could still come to dominate this emerging market.

It’s the perennial question: What’s the next big thing in the enterprise? Plenty of people and companies are betting that it’s collaboration tools that improve workers’ productivity by letting them easily work together, whether they’re across the hall or around the world from each other. The research firm Market and Markets, for example, estimates that the enterprise collaboration market will grow from $26.69 billion in 2016 to $49.51 billion by 2021 — a compound annual growth rate of 13.2%.

The perennial question for Microsoft is, How can we cash in on the next big thing? (Or, more pointedly, How can we dominate it?)

Of course, lots of tech companies want to cash in. And many of them are better positioned than Microsoft at this point. But coming from behind is Microsoft’s old game, so don’t count it out.

The most promising players in the collaboration space right now are probably Google, Facebook and Slack. Slack, the least known of those companies, is the most committed to collaboration. It sprang up as an internal collaboration tool, then launched as a public product in 2013. This fall it surpassed 6 million daily users and 9 million weekly users. It has annual revenues of $200 million, and Bloomberg reports that it is valued at $5 billion.

Google’s powerful set of collaboration tools includes its G Suite competitor to Microsoft Office. G Suite was built with collaboration in mind from the start, so naturally it does a better job of it than Office. Google also has the popular Google Hangouts videoconferencing service, which it is splitting into two products: the Meet videoconferencing tool and the Chat group-conversation app.

As for Facebook, it launched its Workplace collaboration application a year ago, and it is already being used by more than 14,000 organizations, including retail giant Walmart.

That’s stiff competition for Microsoft, which may be hobbled by the fractured nature of the collaboration-related projects it’s pursuing. But it can become the undisputed leader in collaboration — if it plays its cards right. Here’s how.

Chasing the collaboration crown

Microsoft’s most prominent new product for collaboration is Teams, which offers a chat-centric suite of tools that integrate with Microsoft Office for enterprise users. Teams takes direct aim at Slack. But despite some very good features, Teams is somewhat underwhelming, with a confusing interface and, surprisingly, less-than-stellar integration with Office.

Beyond Teams, there’s a confusing mix of Microsoft collaboration products, and it’s uncertain which will die, which will live, and how the survivors might work together. The products include the enterprise favorite SharePoint, the messaging and conferencing application Skype for Business, and the task management tool Planner.

So how does Microsoft use a not-stellar Teams and a mishmash of other applications to become the leader in collaboration? First, it needs to streamline its product mix and communicate a very clear roadmap to enterprises. And it’s starting to do that. The company has announced that Teams is replacing Skype for Business as the chief collaboration tool for Office 365. And it has released a document detailing exactly how that will happen.

But that’s not enough. Where does SharePoint fit in? Is the aging product here for the long term, or will it be rolled into Teams? If not, how will they work together? Microsoft needs to make that clear as well.

After streamlining the product line, Microsoft needs to improve Teams. There’s too much competition in the collaboration market to succeed with a product that isn’t top-notch. That Teams wasn’t a great product on launch is no surprise — that’s often the case with Microsoft. It took until versions 3.0 of both Windows and of Word, for example, for them to become dominant. But given the faster pace of change in the tech world today, Microsoft can’t wait for Version 3 of Teams to succeed. It has to fix it fast.

Microsoft must also use its lineup of existing products to boost collaboration. It has already done that by linking Teams to Office 365 for enterprises. But it needs to move beyond that. Integrating Teams with LinkedIn would go a long way toward making sure Microsoft becomes the leader in collaboration.

Microsoft also needs to use cutting-edge technology for collaboration. Artificial intelligence and virtual assistants will become increasingly important for getting people to work together more effectively, for example by helping people find others in their organizations who are working on similar things as them, setting up meetings, and more. So Microsoft should integrate Cortana with Teams. It should tie in other cutting-edge capabilities as well. It seems to be doing that: It recently announced that its Whiteboard digital canvas app for collaboration is coming to Windows 10.

If Microsoft does all these things, it should come out on top in collaboration. Office’s domination of the enterprise, combined with LinkedIn, gives it the largest beachhead in the business collaboration market. Clearly defining its collaboration roadmap and explaining it to enterprises will make it more likely they’ll turn to Microsoft. And building solid collaboration tools that integrate with all its major products will ensure that enterprises keep using those tools once they try them. No, it won’t be easy to do.

But if Microsoft does all this right, it can rule the roost by the end of the year.

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