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Two interesting collaboration advances happened in 2013. In May 2013, Google introduced Hangouts, a video collaboration feature for Gmail users. An even newer upstart collaboration tool was introduced in August 2013 when Slack was officially launched. Fast-forward five years, and Google unveiled a direct competitor to Slack called Hangouts Chat.
Slack has seen incredible growth since its launch as a stand-alone company adopted by an enthusiastic base of software engineering teams and other early adopters. The messaging and collaboration platform has attracted major enterprise customers, including Twenty-First Century Fox, Intuit and Target, and expanded its feature set to include additional security and enterprise-grade features like advanced search.
"[Google] and Slack messaging have gone beyond quick pings to things like persistent team rooms to work toward a specific goal," said Jacob Bank, director of product management for Gmail and Hangouts Chat. "It's important for people to work together toward a common goal."
Bank said Google collaboration differentiates itself from Slack by offering a wider array of communications options, starting with Gmail. "Email is an amazing communication tool. I don't buy that it's going away. It connects everyone in the world with longer form and more formal communications with, for example, someone you haven't met before," he said. "Chat is more real-time. It's fast and informal."
Similar to private Slack channels, Google Hangouts Chat also offers private conversations. Bank used the example of the Gmail web team that's been around for 15 years. "There's a huge knowledge base of best practices and issues they can keep in one communication channel," he said.
Jacob Bank Director of product management for Gmail and Hangouts Chat, Google
One scenario where Google collaboration has an advantage over Slack is when a team puts a presentation together, Bank said. "I might have three other people who can help me and assets from different services like Google Drive, Docs or Slides. One team member is saying 'You fix this. I'll fix that.' That's the benefit of G Suite. We have a big emphasis on goal-oriented groups," he said.
It's worth noting that, by contrast, Slack doesn't operate in isolation as it offers integration with Gmail, Microsoft and other platforms.
Slack still leads against Google collaboration tools
But Hangouts Chat simply hasn't taken off the way Slack has, according to Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin "Nobody is using Hangouts to the degree that Slack has caught on -- or even Microsoft Teams," he said.
Microsoft recently reported it had surpassed Slack in June with 13 million daily users of Microsoft Teams. Slack reported in January it had more than 10 million daily users.
Bajarin said the reason for Slack's popularity is that it offers a better user experience, is easier to manage and easier to invite others to join.
"I'm in eight different Slack channels for different companies, and we have one of our own. You can't do that with Teams or Hangouts and manage multiple forums and threads the way Slack lets you," he said.
Google looks to innovate, address collaboration overload
But Google continues to innovate and use the assets it has. Bank said email remains an important part of Google collaboration because "if everything moves from email to real-time chat, we're going to go crazy. I can't deal with 30 conversations in real time. By building a unified communications tool that ties to Gmail and offers integration with Hangouts, we think we can help people choose the right channel and prioritize all the stuff coming in."
For its part, Slack acknowledges the need to integrate with email and other systems, but believes it can do just fine on its own.
"People find that Slack replaces emails with a better way of working -- working in channels," said Mat Mullen, lead enterprise and security product manager at Slack. "Channels can be organized around teams, projects or topics and are where not only conversations, but daily work takes place. Through apps and integrations, information flows in and out of Slack and tasks get completed."
Whatever the advantages of messaging and chats, there can also be too much of a good thing, resulting in information overload.
Google is investing in finding ways to limit interruptions while improving productivity.
"We've done a lot of work with Gmail to help users get control of notifications. The most interruptions we get come from communications tools like your phone buzzing," Bank said. "In chats, for example, you want to be able to say which rooms can notify you and which can't. We have a huge effort underway to identify the right interruptions. There's a fire in the building? You want to know about that."