Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
When you think of Slack, you probably think of a chat app that’s growing in popularity for businesses large and small. Originally designed by accident as something that could potentially replace email, Slack hasn’t quite killed off email just yet. But over the past four years, Slack has quietly been building a major platform change for its communications app that might help replace your work email in the future.
Slack Connect furthers the idea of shared channels that let companies collaborate, allowing up to 20 organizations to work seamlessly together with apps, chat, and more. Over a million Slack users have been testing Slack Connect in recent months, and it’s launching for all paid plans today.
“The vision for Slack has always been to build Slack Connect so that the benefits you get for channel-based communication within your own organization you’ll get when communicating with everyone,” says Tamar Yehoshua, Slack’s chief product officer, in an interview with The Verge. “Email has been around for decades… we wanted to build a model that addresses the limitations of email.”
Slack Connect is enabling businesses to use Slack in new ways that go beyond just traditional human-to-human communications. Nando’s, a restaurant in the UK that specializes in peri-peri style chicken dishes, is using Slack Connect for automated communications with its delivery partner Deliveroo. Other businesses like Fastly are using Slack Connect for customer support, and Zendesk is using it to connect with partners. Slack has even built a Slack Connect instance for doctors to share their experiences with each other in the fight against COVID-19 in recent months.
“We’ve been piloting this capability for months,” explains Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield. “We just used Slack Connect to raise a little over $800 million in a convertible bond.” Slack has also been using this Slack Connect platform to speed up communications with its partners. While that’s always been the case for how you use Slack within your own workplace, Slack wants to bring that idea of instant communications between businesses. Rather than multiple email threads or in-person meetings, businesses can simply drop a link to their partners, customers, vendors, creative agencies, and more in shared channels and Slack instances.
“This is a very critical part of the vision for Slack,” explains Yehoshua. “I believe a lot of the communication that’s happening over email will move to Slack. Email will always be around for certain use cases. We’re not going to be a substitute for everything that happens in email… but we do see that when corporations move to using Slack wall-to-wall there’s a significant reduction of email within their corporation.”
Slack paid users will be able to start communicating with each other by simply sharing an invite link, but Slack Connect won’t be available to free users at launch. While direct messages and channels will be one part of Slack Connect, the idea is that it forms the foundations for a future where these shared channels become the place for businesses to sign contracts with partners, check on invoices, manage purchase orders, or monitor service tickets. It’s an ambition that goes beyond just email or messaging.
There are obviously a lot of privacy and security aspects to these communications, and Slack will provide granular options for IT admins to manage exactly what’s shared. Slack is also improving its channels’ user interface, so it’s very clear when you’re using a shared channel and who is participating in the channel.
There’s even some machine learning going on that will allow Slack to scan calendars across multiple organizations and help workers create meetings at appropriate times when everyone is free. Slack apps can also be shared across organizations, as long as both parties have them installed in their own Slack instance.
If Slack is successful in convincing businesses that it has the answer to their communication needs, it certainly looks like another step in reducing tedious email threads and even meetings between companies. Slack’s recent funding round meant all of its various partners could participate in a shared channel, the ultimate test of the technology it has built. “Everyone from Slack who was working on the deal was in a channel with our bankers, lawyers, and consultants… and everyone knew what questions had been asked and answered,” says Butterfield.
Slack obviously has a big incentive to gradually move businesses away from email. Butterfield spoke to The Verge recently about Slack’s competition with Microsoft Teams. Microsoft has seen rapid growth with Teams recently during the pandemic, but if Slack can reduce the importance of email then this strikes at the heart of Microsoft’s Office dominance with Outlook and Exchange.
“In a different universe where Slack is incredibly successful over the next two years and 98 percent of knowledge workers use Slack, it does matter to Microsoft because the relative importance of email is hugely diminished,” said Butterfield in a Vergecast interview last month. “It’s really about email, and if email becomes less important, then that whole $35, $40 billion-a-year collaboration productivity business unit is threatened.”
With 65 million messages sent across Slack at peak times, it’s clear people love the idea of instant communications. With Teams, Microsoft is behind on Slack’s vision of shared channels. The software giant only introduced private channels last year, and while you can invite guests to Teams channels, it’s not close to what Slack Connect is offering today.
Slack Connect will inevitably force Microsoft to respond with Teams, but it does highlight how both companies have positioned their communications clients. Microsoft Teams has been tightly integrated into Office, bundled with Office 365 subscriptions, and really aimed at businesses that rely on Microsoft. Slack has taken the approach of trying to be the platform that connects a variety of productivity apps and services for businesses and, in particular, smaller ones that are growing and using more tools.
Slack has now caught on in the enterprise side of business that Microsoft dominates, but it still has a lot of work to do to convince even bigger customers than Amazon or IBM to go all-in on Slack over Microsoft Teams. Slack Connect might just help convince some, though.
“We’ve seen companies bring their partners or customers into Slack just so they could have a shared channel across organizational boundaries because that way of working together is so much more effective and productive,” says Butterfield.
While Slack started off in a battle to kill your own workplace email, the greater war is eliminating emails between businesses. Slack now wants to be seen as the communications tool of the future to achieve that, and it’s a war that has just begun.