7 Factors to Consider on Enterprise Messaging Apps
Before selecting a workstream messaging app like Circuit, HipChat, Slack, or Spark, be sure to explore each vendor's particular architectural approach and philosophy.
Workstream messaging, also known as team collaboration and a variety of other terms, is the new panacea for enterprise communications. These new applications center on a familiar messaging interface, but extend into shared content and real-time communications.
For the past two years I’ve been predicting a collision between these workstream messaging applications and UC. That appears to have been optimistic, instead, the UC vendors are launching their own workstream messaging solutions, and the new applications may instead subsume UC. UC vendors with new workstream solutions include Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Avaya, BroadSoft, Cisco, Fuze, Microsoft, Mitel, RingCentral, ShoreTel, and Unify.
To the casual observer, all of these applications look alike. They do indeed share many common characteristics. Almost all of them feature persistent messaging between individuals and among teams. This content forms a searchable and shared conversation history.
Most of these solutions support interactions with external users. This marks a significant difference between workstream messaging and the instant messaging found in UC suites. Although external/guest users typically do not have as many capabilities as licensed users, they can participate at will.
Big differences among workstream messaging applications reflect the immaturity of the category. Some of these differences may be short lived as the products are evolving quickly. However, some differences are attributable to the varying architectural approaches and philosophies among vendors and will persist.
The unified part of the UC vision was to tie together all forms of communications into a single application. Most of the UC vendors missed email and SMS -- and then enterprise social needs emerged. Workstream messaging also has a unified communications vision, but without the term. These solutions often replace SMS, reduce email, and offer more inclusive conversations.
Most workstream messaging solutions support real-time communications, with point-to-point voice and/or video calling. But that isn’t the same as telephony, which includes inbound/outbound PSTN services and telephones.
Some workstream messaging solution providers suggest that placing a call on a separate system is no big deal. But that works against a consolidated conversation history. A key benefit to workstream messaging solutions is how much users can accomplish within a single application. A response to some information may trigger a conversation, which may transition among messaging, voice, and video.
This is where many of the UC companies that offer workstream messaging solutions have an advantage. Developing a rich and robust messaging solution is difficult, but it is a cakewalk compared to that challenge non-UC vendors face in building a feature-rich, reliable voice platform.
Prospective customers need to reconcile their long-term plans for voice and their desire for a comprehensive communications tool. UC vendors/providers such as a RingCentral, Mitel, and Unify offer integrated UC. Unify also supports a SIP connector that integrates with most UC platforms.
Workstream messaging evolved from basic group chat solutions such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC). These solutions present conversations chronologically, as do IM and SMS . New messages (or other content) are added to the stack as they arrive.
This works well with smaller, interactive groups. But as teams grow, the conversational strings get longer and more difficult to follow. Side conversations start popping up, and the overall conversation gets "noisy" and hard to follow. The solution is threaded conversations, but this means different things to different people.
Slack users were requesting threaded conversations so regularly that the company promised last April that it would add the feature. Evidently, this required quite a complex architectural change -- Slack only just released threaded messaging a couple of weeks ago.
Slack’s implementation of threaded conversations is surprising because its threaded messages are specifically created and placed outside the main conversation. Slack’s threading separates side conversations to reduce noise, but these messages are private and can't be searched.
Microsoft Teams, still in preview, touts threaded conversations as a key feature. In Teams each message supports a single layer comment thread. These comments are visible, searchable, and potentially noisy. The current version does not offer any tools to reduce or manage noise. Teams is expected to become generally available this quarter.
We know from email, Twitter, and Google Wave that the topic of threaded messages is personal and controversial. Twitter was subject to user vitriol when it introduced its “blue line” conversation view in 2013. In email, threaded conversations have been a core philosophical difference between Outlook and Gmail. Outlook can now thread, and Gmail can now turn off threading, but their implementations are still dissimilar.
Key to the "workstream" part is integration with other applications. The workstream is a dashboard and portal into other workflow-related applications, bringing together people (teams, directories, permissions), content (documents, portal to other apps), and communications (asynchronous and real time) into a single environment.
Vendor-provided integrations make connecting to applications easy, and most vendors support integrations to popular CRM, email, and service ticket systems. However, integrations will never be enough. Prospects are advised to carefully evaluate API and vendor ecosystems. Ideally, a significant portion of the workstream solution should be accessible via API. This was likely the motivation behind Cisco’s acquisition of Tropo.
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