Enterprise collaboration is more than just sending emails to peers. It’s about sharing documents, chatting in real time while in different locations, connecting teams via video conferences and sharing screens to remain on the same page, among other things.
Truly effective enterprise collaboration applications represent one of the most promising opportunities for cloud computing. During the last few years, several software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies have emerged with the promise of improving team and workplace collaboration. These include Quip, Biba, Zulip, Thinking Phones, Glip, Hall and Slack, among many others.
Given NextPlane’s unique position, I am often asked about what is currently working and what is coming down the pike. I want to share my thoughts on the promise and the progress in collaboration software while also touching on the areas of opportunity.
NextPlane started with a thesis that SaaS would change the way that employees collaborated. We anticipated that connected employees would increasingly rely on always-updated cloud solutions to interact with each other, reducing the communication challenges of modern distributed work environments.
These challenges, documented in 1988 by sociologist Robert Johansen in his ground-breaking CSCW Matrix, require different types of solutions depending on whether communication is happening at the same time or is asynchronous, and whether communication takes place face-to-face or remotely.
Cloud solutions have been particularly effective at tackling the challenge of helping employees who work together from geographically disparate locations. For example, Yammer built a business social networking platform to help employees feel more connected to one another, no matter where they worked. Box has dramatically simplified the previously complex task of working on a set of shared documents from multiple devices across multiple locations. Google Hangouts and Skype offer multi-device, real-time videoconferencing applications free of charge.
We are also starting to see a new set of mobile-first collaboration tools that offer mobile messaging in a work environment, such as those from Biba and Uber Conference.
The good news is that these cloud collaboration companies can reduce friction in employee engagement, particularly for distributed employees. The bad news is that they are walled gardens—closed platforms the provider has full control over.
Either way, let’s take a look at some of the new challengers to traditional UC vendors and their take on collaboration:
- Quip: Cut from a similar cloth as Google Docs, Quip engineered an Android-based app that offers a sleek interface and was designed to help facilitate the ease with which collaboration occurs. With Quip, users can create documents and share them, and any changes made to the original iterations are recorded in a log. Users are also able to message one another through the app.
- Biba: Originally conceived as a mobile-only offering, Biba offers a collaboration platform that offers conference calling, online meetings, video calling and business messaging. The company believes that collaboration depends on how applications work on different devices, and because of that it recently released desktop functionality as well. With Biba, users can seamlessly move their collaborative experiences across devices.
- Zulip: Earlier this year, file-sharing service Dropbox acquired Zulip, a company that makes a platform that is still in beta and was designed to facilitate and organize internal business communications across multiple devices. Depending on their preference, users are able to denote their communications as public or private. Public communications appear under whichever stream is most pertinent, like “design,” “sales” or “support.” And those streams can be further subdivided as well. For example, you might find “Web,” “app” and “drawing board” under “design.”
- Thinking Phones: Delivering UC-as-a-Service (UCaaS), Thinking Phones seeks to deliver integrated communications via its own platform through the cloud. The company sought a solution that would liberate medium businesses and large enterprises from the shackles of legacy communications equipment. Thinking Phones offers customers streamlined business processes, lower costs, and inherent disaster recovery and scalability, among other things.
- Glip: Designed with the small- to medium-sized business in mind, Glip offers a communications platform designed to bolster businesses collaborative abilities. But it doesn’t call itself a collaboration platform. Instead, it’s a conversation platform that allows for businesses to quickly bring in clients, contractors and freelancers to talk about projects. To use Glip, you have to download a plug-in, so there is some barrier to interoperability. Furthermore, the program lacks a central location where files can be uploaded.
- Hall: Understanding the importance of allowing real-time communication in the business world, Hall offers a secure, cloud-based texting application that fosters an environment conducive to collaboration. Leveraging the power of the cloud, Hall ensures that communications are synced across all of your devices, creating a seamless experience.
- Slack: Billing itself as a work conversation app that also serves as an easily searched file manager, Slack’s platform offers a seamless experience across mobile devices and computers. With Slack, emails sent within a company become a thing of the past, as messaging, file sharing and notifications unite under a central hub delivered in real time. The app provides a steady stream of communication, creating a transparent environment that’s conducive to mobility. Still, it lacks threaded integrations. The company recently raised $43 million in new funding.
According to the Information Week 2014 State of Unified Communications survey, only 44 percent of companies have deployed any type of UC solution. In other words, more than half of companies don't have any type of UC tools deployed, and these new platforms are targeting those businesses. And investors are backing them up with their dollars; otherwise, VCs would not be funding these companies.
These platforms offer robust services that are geared toward geographically dispersed teams and engineered with mobility in mind. Due to the fact that most traditional UC vendors lack mobile functionality, businesses considering deploying collaboration platforms should seriously consider these platforms. For the most part, they boast sleek designs and are cloud-based, meaning businesses won't have to deal with heavy-duty clients and equipment they would have to otherwise, for the most part, when choosing traditional UC vendors.
But the one drawback is that these newcomers need to be federation-ready and offer collaboration across organizational boundaries if they want to compete on the same level as the traditional UC vendors. I anticipate that they will rally toward this end.