Slack May be the Uber of the UC Space

Rethinking Communications

Slack May be the Uber of the UC Space

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates  |  October 14, 2015

I began exploring how the nature of collaboration is changing, and the challenges that presents for unified communications vendors. I touched on Slack’s booming popularity, and in this post I’ll take things a bit further. By looking at what has given rise to Slack and others like them, I hope it becomes clearer as to why collaboration needs a rethink.

As noted in my last post, if you’re not using the right tools to communicate, your collaboration results won’t be that great. Things are happening quickly, and here’s what you need to know about before making your next decision about collaboration.

The Uberization of UC

If you accept the notion that UC vendors view themselves as the logical, go-to platform for collaboration, then the parallels to Uber become pretty strong. Aside from having a vendor-centric view, there’s a lot of legacy in their solutions. Given that most vendors have strong telecom roots, telephony is central to their UC platforms, and email isn’t far behind.

While their platforms are evolving to keep up with broader collaboration trends, they are operating from a position of strength. The major players have a pedigree of dominance they want to protect, and to a degree this sounds a bit like the taxi industry.

Uber is disruptive not because it’s built a better mousetrap or have better technology than the taxi operators, but because it understands how technology is changing the way people do things, and has focused on a specific and very real problem set. Many taxi services have their own mobile apps, so it’s not like they can’t compete. Rather, they’re too slow and disorganized to respond, and when a better business model comes along, they cry foul rather than regroup around how the market has changed.

It’s not clear whether Uber truly will succeed or whether this really is a better business model overall, but Slack can potentially have a similar impact on the UC status quo. As with Uber, it has identified how needs are changing and how using different technologies in new ways can deliver great results – not necessarily better than what UC can provide, but certainly good enough for a variety of situations.

The technology angle is important, but so is the speed at which things are happening. Taxi operators have been able to artificially control supply for decades, and until Uber came along, they had no reason to believe that was ever going to change. Sure sounds a lot like incumbent telcos, right? Just like VoIP was a new Big Bang (News - Alert), Uber came out of nowhere and in the blink of an eye it has become an existential threat to a huge industry.

While UC is far less pervasive in the business world, Slack has achieved fantastic traction in very little time. Within a year of launching in February of 2014, it hit 500,000 active users. Its official infographic shows 135,000 paid accounts, generating $12 million in annual recurring revenue. The dollars aren’t yet huge, but they don’t need to be right now. The key is making Slack sticky so it can become the go-to platform for getting things done.

This is what every UC platform aspires to for enabling collaboration, but the others don’t look like anything like Slack. The company claims that users spend 10 hours a day engaged with Slack. I don’t know if your employees work that long every day, but if this was happening with UC vendors, there would be no room in the market for the likes of Slack.

Is the user experience more important than the apps you use for collaboration?

So, what’s different? Slack is really a hub where third-party applications seamlessly work together, and currently it supports about 80 of them and is adding to that all the time. Familiar names include Box, Dropbox (News - Alert), GitHub, Google Drive/Calendar/+Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and Zendesk. Aside from being able to share content across these applications, its search feature makes it easy to find everything. Of course, the platform is optimized for mobile devices, and there’s no question it knows where and how their users live.

This is a very different collaboration model from what the UC vendors we’ve come to know offer. Rather than providing a turnkey platform, Slack is a hub for third-party applications that people already know and use. The familiarity level is very high, making Slack a highly intuitive environment for collaboration.

Have you noticed that email and telephony are nowhere to be found? Slack is not intended to replace email, but there really isn’t a need for it here. Platforms like Slack had their start with IRC – Internet Relay Chat, a very simple web-based communications channel that programmers have been using for years.

A key reason why it’s so popular – and a key driver for Slack – is that it’s entirely person-to-person. You only use it when you want to communicate. This on-demand nature means IRC doesn’t become a catchall location for automated messages – spam – from the outside world. The majority of email is unsolicited and is a key reason why it’s doing more harm than good as a productivity tool. With IRC principles in mind, Slack has taken the best elements of email but left the rest behind.

To be fair, old habits die hard – not just here, but in the taxi industry and elsewhere – so email and telephony will be with us for years to come. However, among Millennials, the realities are very different, and basically, if UC was being invented today, Slack is what it would look like. If it can sustain the idea that collaboration can effectively be done via a collection of third-party applications, then it will have a viable value proposition that could disrupt the UC status quo. For now, Slack only has utility for certain internal, team-based use cases, but as it matures, there’s no doubt it will broaden to other spheres. Uber, by the way, is no different.

If its initial foray into the taxi space runs its course, Uber will – and is – pushing into new directions such as home delivery. The point is it has built its business around how people do things today, and the less connected to legacy models, the better. Slack echoes this in the collaboration space; if you’re prepared to rethink what collaboration can be in 2015, Slack is closer to the center of gravity than what conventional UC vendors are doing, and as we move beyond the early adopter stage, anything is possible.

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal at J Arnold & Associates (www.jarnoldassociates.com).


Jon Arnold is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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