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Limitations of Microsoft Teams private channels rankle users

After waiting for Microsoft Teams private channels to launch for years, customers are now grappling with the limitations of the new feature.

Customers had to wait more than three years for Microsoft to add support for private channels in Teams. Now, companies will have to wait even longer for the secret chatrooms to gain feature parity with their public counterparts.

Workers are unable to use messaging bots and certain apps in Microsoft Teams private channels, including Microsoft Planner. Users are also blocked from scheduling an online meeting in the channel, although they can host spontaneous conferences.

IT admins have encountered additional limitations. For example, they can't convert public channels to private channels and vice versa. Also, companies can create only 30 private channels per team, versus 200 public channels.

Microsoft plans to eventually support bots and apps like Planner in Microsoft Teams private channels but has not said when that will happen. The company declined to comment on whether it would address any of the other restrictions.

"I don't have confidence that some of these gaps will be addressed anytime soon," said Phillip Lyle, assistant vice president of enterprise and research infrastructure at Chapman University, which is in the process of switching from Skype for Business to Teams.

At Chapman University, private channels provide confidential chatrooms for supervisors within each department's group in Teams. Lyle also wants the ability to make some existing channels private to reduce clutter for the average user. But Microsoft doesn't support such a capability.   

"It's less of an issue going forward, but we're stuck with our existing structures for the existing teams," Lyle said.

Another issue is channel membership. Channels are chatrooms within a group of users called a team. Only members of a team can be invited to join a channel. But in some cases, users would like to invite someone -- such as a customer -- to a private channel without giving them access to the entire team.

"I do hear lots of people wanting a private channel to have a different membership [from] the team," said Tom Arbuthnot, principal solutions architect at Modality Systems, a Microsoft-focused systems integrator.

Microsoft began rolling out private channels in November 2019, after more than 25,000 people endorsed a request for the feature on the company's user feedback forum. The vendor previously waffled on whether and when to support private channels, at one point slating them for release in early 2018.

Microsoft rival Slack has offered a version of private channels since 2015. Microsoft's lack of support for private chatrooms was a barrier to adoption for companies considering migrating from Slack to Teams, said Russ Basiura, a consultant with Accel365, which helps companies implement Office 365.

"When you start talking about migrating from Slack, you need to have that capability there," Basiura said. "Otherwise, companies won't move."

Earlier this month, Microsoft began rolling out the ability to apply a legal hold to messages and files in private channels. The vendor is also in the process of giving IT admins the ability to decide whether users should be able to discover private channels through search.

Meanwhile, Microsoft plans to make private channels available for Office 365 government plans later this month.

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