Slack and the State of Technology at the End of 2015

Last December I wrote an article entitled The State of Consumer Technology at the End of 2014. That article was more than a year-in-review though: in it I both defined the different epochs of computing — PC, Internet, and mobile — as well as the distinct arenas of competition within each epoch: the operating system and killer applications for productivity and communications.


The question I raised is what comes next?

The Facebook Epoch

The answer, at least when it comes to the consumer space (and excluding China) is Facebook. I laid out why in an article entitled, appropriately enough, The Facebook Epoch:

Mobile is a great market. It is the greatest market the tech industry, or any industry for that matter, has ever seen, and the reason why is best seen by contrasting mobile with the PC: first, while PCs were on every desk and in every home, mobile is in every pocket of a huge percentage of the world’s population. The sheer numbers triple or quadruple the size, and the separation is increasing. Secondly, though, while using a PC required intent, the use of mobile devices occupies all of the available time around intent. It is only when we’re doing something specific that we aren’t using our phones, and the empty spaces of our lives are far greater than anyone imagined.

Into this void — this massive market, both in terms of numbers and available time — came the perfect product: a means of following, communicating, and interacting with our friends and family. And, while we use a PC with intent, what we humans most want to do with our free time is connect with other humans: as Aristotle long ago observed, “Man is by nature a social animal.” It turned out Facebook was most people’s natural habitat, and by most people I mean those billions using mobile.

Note that in that piece I rearranged the epochs slightly: specifically, I defined the “Internet Epoch” — which was dominated by Google — as sitting on top of PCs, which meant the relative size of this epoch was constrained by the fact that PCs were, relatively speaking, not mobile; rather, both PC usage and Google uses was defined by intent. Mobile, and by extension Facebook, were different: their usage was defined not only by increased availability, but also by the “empty spaces” in our lives.

What, though, about enterprise computing? And what is the killer app when it comes to work and productivity on mobile?

The Reorganization of the Enterprise Stack

Microsoft has arguably dominated enterprise computing even more than they dominated the PC epoch generally, in part because they delivered an integrated solution that, to put it simply, made life easier for Chief Information Officers in particular. I wrote in Redmond and Reality:

Consider your typical Chief Information Officer in the pre-Cloud era: for various reasons she has bought in to some aspect of the Microsoft stack (likely Exchange). So, in order to support Exchange, the CIO must obviously buy Windows Server. And Windows Server includes Active Directory, so obviously that will be the identity service. However, now that the CIO has parts of the Microsoft stack in place, she is likely to be much more inclined to go with other Microsoft products as well, whether that be SQL Server, Dynamics CRM, SharePoint, etc. True, the Microsoft product may not always be the best in a vacuum, but no CIO operates in a vacuum: maintenance and service costs are a huge concern, and there is a lot to be gained by buying from fewer vendors rather than more. In fact, much of Microsoft’s growth over the last 15 years can be traced to Ballmer’s cleverness in exploiting this advantage through both new products and also new pricing and licensing agreements that heavily incentivized Microsoft customers to buy ever more from the company.

Microsoft’s dominance, though, has been chipped away via the one-two punch of the cloud and mobile. Cloud-based applications not only offered a payment model that was more attractive to many businesses, but they also removed the need for troublesome upkeep. This, then, allowed other aspects of the product to rise in relative importance when it came to the purchase decision, whether that be specific features or just the general user experience.

It’s here that mobile mattered: for years Microsoft products were well behind the competition when it came to the mobile experience on non-Microsoft platforms like iOS and Android. This is the one-two punch I was referring to: the cloud removed one of Microsoft’s biggest lock-ins in the enterprise, while mobile gave enterprises a reason to try something different.

The Cloud Epoch

Indeed, the way in which cloud and mobile worked hand-in-hand to uproot Microsoft is no accident. When it comes to the enterprise side of computing, I would place the cloud as the fourth epoch, and just as the Internet (or in the case of enterprise, on-premise applications) rested on PCs, the cloud very much rests on a mobile foundation: not only do all workers, blue collar or white, have a phone, but they also have that phone in more and more places, and the fact you always have your phone with you means you are, effectively, always available to work.1

To Satya Nadella’s credit, he has over the past two years strongly pushed Microsoft to be competitive on all those other platforms, and in fact the article I just quoted was written in the context of Office adding file picker support for Dropbox and Box, despite the fact both were direct competitors. The reality is that leveraging one piece of software to sell another is a strategy that simply doesn’t make sense in the cloud: there is no implementation advantage, so you have to simply compete on a feature and user experience basis.

Still, that doesn’t mean integration isn’t desirable: what will tie all of these cloud services together? Back in 2014 I theorized that the key player — the “OS” of the cloud epoch — might be whoever owns a company’s data, like, for example, Box:

Pure storage isn’t a great business. The cost is trending towards zero…Data, though, is priceless; it can’t be replaced, and it’s the essence of what makes a particular organization unique. For this reason, and for regulatory ones, there are all kinds of specialized controls that IT departments need for data. This is where Box has worked diligently to differentiate themselves from consumer-focused competitors like Dropbox…

Just because the operating system is no longer the platform does not mean that the need — and opportunity — for a platform does not exist. Something needs to tie together all those computing devices, and data, which needs to be everywhere, is the logical place to start.

I think, in retrospect, I outsmarted myself: companies aren’t made of data, they’re made of people, just like every other single institution on earth. And, as I noted in the context of Facebook, what people love to do, more than anything else in the world, is communicate. Why wouldn’t you start there?

Enter messaging broadly, and Slack (and its competitors like HipChat) specifically.

Messaging: The Cloud’s OS

I have been writing about the importance of messaging ever since this blog started, most notably in Messaging: Mobile’s Killer App.2 Messaging, in conjunction with mobile, is one of the most powerful platforms this industry has ever seen:

Still, it’s only recently that the killer app for this era, when the nodes of communication are smartphones, has become apparent, and it is messaging. While the home telephone enabled real-time communication, and the web passive communication, messaging enables constant communication. Conversations are never ending, and friends come and go at a pace dictated not by physicality, but rather by attention. And, given that we are all humans and crave human interaction and affection, we are more than happy to give massive amounts of attention to messaging, to those who matter most to us, and who are always there in our pockets and purses.

Those words are an awfully close match to the words I used to describe the cloud epoch just a couple of paragraphs ago: everyone, everywhere, always available. Indeed, combined with the human desire to connect and communicate, how could the operating system of the cloud be anything but messaging? This is what makes Slack’s announcement yesterday of the Slack Platform so compelling — obvious, even.3 From the company’s blog:

We live in an exciting time for work. Instead of three or four big vendors providing end-to-end software suites, we have a variety of top notch products at our fingertips ready to make us more powerful and productive in our jobs. But all of these great products come with a small cost: the tools we use every day don’t always play well together. Progress and productivity can end up in silos instead of being reviewed and tracked by the whole team.

The Slack Platform aims to make your experience with apps even better. We know that just a fraction of improvement in everyday interactions between the business services you use makes a world of difference. And so today we’re taking a few bigs steps forward in bringing them all together.

Right now, the Slack Platform consist of a new Slack App Directory, already populated with over 160 apps, a Slack Fund, to invest in new apps, and Botkit, a new framework to easily build new apps. Just as important, though, is Slack’s business model of paid licensing: I’ve noted previously in the context of Facebook that advertising-based businesses don’t make good platform providers:

It’s better for an advertising business to not be a platform. There are certain roles and responsibilities a platform must bear with regards to the user experience, and many of these work against effective advertising. That’s why, for example, you don’t see any advertising in Android, despite the fact it’s built by the top advertising company in the world. [On the other hand,] a Facebook app owns the entire screen, and can use all of that screen for what benefits Facebook, and Facebook alone.

That’s actually ideal for a consumer-focused company: after all, consumers don’t pay for software. Enterprises, though, are a different story: they don’t tolerate advertising, and are eager to pay for a service that provides a real return on investment. Indeed, going forward, outside of Apple (which makes money through selling hardware), I suspect the vast majority of profitable platforms will be primarily enterprise-focused.

Slack’s Opportunity

That said, it’s hard to see anyone — including Microsoft — having a bigger opportunity than Slack.4 The trend in every aspect of computing is higher and higher levels of abstraction, and that doesn’t apply just to things like programming languages. In the case of platforms, the operating system of the PC used to really matter, and then the Internet came along and it didn’t. Similarly, in mobile, the operating system, whether that be iOS or Android, used to really matter, but now it doesn’t. In the consumer space, Facebook or WeChat runs on both, and that is far more important to the day-to-day experience of the vast majority of people.

It turns out that “mobile” is not about devices, but rather, at a fundamental level, about computing anywhere; to differentiate between PCs or phones is an ultimately meaningless exercise. They are simply different form factors of effectively identical devices, the purpose of which is to connect us to the cloud (consumer or enterprise). And, by extension, if the device is simply an implementation detail, then the operating system that runs on that device is a detail of a detail.

What matters — what always matters! — is what actual users want to do, and what jobs they want to accomplish. And, whatever they want to do almost certainly involves communicating, which means Slack and its competitors are the best-placed to be the foundational platform of the cloud epoch. More broadly, humans are social creatures: why should we be surprised that social networks are primed to be the most important businesses of all?

  1. Whether or not this is a good thing is a subject for another article 

  2. Rather fortuitously, I posted that article exactly one day before Facebook shocked the world by buying WhatsApp 

  3. HipChat, Slack’s biggest competitor, actually beat Slack to the punch, having announced their development platform last month 

  4. Note that I said “opportunity”; opportunity means it’s possible, not that it’s necessarily going to happen