Regular readers of Let’s Do Video are well aware by now that I am bullish on persistent team messaging (PTM) solutions. Let’s Do Video is a Slack shop. With a 100% remote-based team, Slack is our office. When I’m logged into Slack, I am at work.
At first, my enthusiasm for this new way to work was met with some skepticism from the video analyst community, but with Slack now established as the fastest growing business app in the history of apps, it’s safe to say that I’m not alone. The benefits of PTM (or WCC if you prefer) go far behind providing an “office space” for remote teams. It offers a more efficient, logical, and contextual workflow for all teams, even those meeting in person every day at a physical location.
When Cisco (the market leader in the industry I cover) jumped on board with Spark, its own PTM solution, I was excited to start testing. However, it proved impossible to convince my team to switch over. Slack is notoriously “sticky” which is a huge part of its success. It has many obvious strengths and power features that users love, but it also has that indefinable something that often makes the difference between a winning app and a second runner-up. Cisco Spark is good, but it’s still very new and I give it a mostly positive, but mixed review in terms of its feature set and workflow. Check back soon for more thoughts on Spark as I’m writing a critical piece based on my testing. Bottom line, Spark was not able to replace Slack, or even become a regular part of my team’s toolkit.
This is going to change in 2016. Let’s Do Video will be using Cisco Spark this year as I have discovered a crucial thing Cisco Spark does better than Slack. We aren’t giving up Slack, but we will be using both for different needs.
So what is this killer feature? You would probably think that it’s Spark’s video chat. After all, Let’s Do Video is on video all day and Cisco is a video powerhouse, so Spark’s inherent video meeting capability must be a home run with us, right? Not so much. Spark’s video is fine, but it isn’t the best video service out there, as its feature set is still pretty basic. Also, Slack does have integrated video through its APIs. Slack’s video includes some of the most popular video cloud services out there. If I type “/bluejeans” or “/zoom” in a Slack channel, I get a link to my respective video rooms for those services. I’ve even managed to custom integrate my other video rooms using the “Slackbot” feature, so I can type “meet on Videxio” or “meet on StarLeaf” or “meet on Lifesize” and Slack will provide the link to those video rooms.
The one big advantage Spark has over Slack is the ability to easily include externals.
Slack is a team-based worktool. It’s nearly impossible to include externals if you use the free version, and even with the paid version it severely limits your ability to bring in outsiders. Spark, on the other hand, makes no distinction between your team and your external partners. It treats everyone you communicate with equally. As a result, I can say that Slack has reduced my use of email with team members by 99%, but it has had no effect on my emails with clients and partners. On the other hand, Rowan Trollope can boast that Spark has reduced his use of email across the board. This is a huge deal. I am enjoying the efficient, contextual, powerful workflow of Slack with my team in all our internal projects, but I am stuck dealing with the back and forth of email when I collaborate with my clients. Suddenly, Spark is looking pretty darn attractive as it offers a way to Slack-ify my external collaboration.
Here is the problem with Slack. With the free version you can’t invite an external to a specific channel. You can only invite someone to your team, which enables them to see and join all of your channels. You can get around this by making all of your channels private, but that is a clunky solution to the problem and changes the dynamic for your internal team. It also doesn’t solve the issue entirely and elegantly as you are still required to make externals part of your team in order to get them in the door. If you have the paid version of Slack, you can invite guests to specific channels, without making them a part of your team or making any channels private. However, you have a limit of 5 guests per each paid user. I am currently working on more than 5 projects with various clients and partners. Even if I sprang for the paid version of Slack (which would require me to pay a monthly fee for each of my team members), it still wouldn’t completely solve my need to Slack-ify my workflow with externals.
Spark, on the other hand, has no concept of teams. This is a case where less is more. By skipping the team concept, each channel (or room as it is known in Spark) exists separate and apart from all your other rooms. I can create a new room and invite any combination of internal and external collaborators without any of them having any access, or even any knowledge, of my other Spark rooms. This puts everyone I communicate with on an even playing field. It allows me to Spark with anyone on the planet, without exposing any of my internal team business. The comparative openness of Spark is a huge advantage over Slack, and the difference between being a team worktool, and a complete change to your communication workflow.
To be clear, it’s far too early to pick a winner in the battle for the future of PTM, and the market is more than big enough to support Spark, Slack, and several other entries. However, as Slack works to edge its way into the enterprise, and Cisco starts fishing downstream towards SMBs and startups, these differentiators will become an important part of the decision-making process for working teams looking to modernize their workflow.