Beware geeks bearing gifts.
That was our initial reaction when we learned Microsoft was giving away access to its prized Teams platform. As we predicted might come to pass all the way back in May, Microsoft Teams is now free. The company made its workplace collaboration tool available for free to casual and small business users in late August in a clear attempt to challenge Slack for the leadership of the corporate world’s most contested space.
Such a transparent move seemed too good to be true, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised by Microsoft’s free offering and impressed with their generosity… even if we all know it’s just a ploy to get us to buy a Teams subscription. There are some key ingredients missing that are supposed to intrigue us into paying for the service, but overall, the free version of Teams is a quality product.
Microsoft will need it to impress, as Slack has grown from a novelty into a full-blown devourer of its rivals–it just bought and killed competitor Atlassian’s flagship apps Hipchat and the recently released Stride–as the battle for workplace collaboration starts to get bloody (again, just as we predicted).
Based on just a few uses, we’d go so far as to say Microsoft Teams has a better pure video calling experience, but the world Slack has created is integrated and instant, and for now that looks like enough to hold the tech giant at bay.
Be warned though, if this first glimpse at Teams is anything to go by, Microsoft won’t be the underdog for long.
Microsoft Teams Is Now Free, So Here’s What You Get
Tech giants like Microsoft don’t amass fortunes and establish world dominance by turning down their customers’ money, but you should be well pleased with the deal they’ve put together to make you take a look at their workplace collaboration platform.
The free version of Teams is more than just a glimpse. It works across iOS, Android, Mac, and, of course, Windows, and you get all the following features:
- Can be used by up to 300 people (just like the subscription service)
- Unlimited video chat and messaging
- Screen sharing
- Unlimited apps (Slack’s free version cuts you off at 10)
- Unlimited message searches (Slack’s free version limits you to the previous 10,000)
- 10GB of team cloud storage (Slack’s free version gives you 5GB)
- 2GB of personal cloud storage
- Access to Office Online
That’s a generous offer, and if you’ve got 300 employees that need access to the team collaboration platform, it’d be difficult to argue you’re still a small business. Importantly, as we’ve noted above, there are some clear advantages over Slack’s free version, especially the ability to host subscription-level crowds on the app without charge.
Of course, Microsoft has left off some key features to tempt you into a subscription down the road. You’ll have to pay for one of the subscription offerings if you want exchange email (a custom email service such as @videoconferencingdaily.com, for instance), the full Office 365 package, video recording and searchable meeting transcription, free phone calls, and increased cloud storage.
Still, this free Teams is a valuable tool for any small(er) business, and well worth a look. So let’s take one.
Video Conferencing with Teams
For a start, you don’t need to be an existing Microsoft customer or have a 365 account to join. Just hand over your contact details–they want your email and phone which some may balk at for a free product–and the app should launch from your Chrome or Edge browser without any downloads. Microsoft is a big WebRTC supporter, which should streamline the Teams service and make it quicker to connect with people. Unfortunately, Chrome doesn’t support video calls within Teams yet, so you’ll have to download the full Teams desktop app to get face-to-face.
Once it’s all up and running though, it’s easy to add people to your group through simple email invites. The app is well presented, with pastel graphics and cartoon icons for its multitude of features. Most of these features you’ll be familiar with if you’ve used a major video conferencing platform before, especially Teams’ predecessor, Skype for Business. The one major departure is the addition of bots to the Teams experience. These digital assistants act like internet search engines and help tabs. They sit on the periphery of your video chat and help connect it to the wider world, both of Teams and the web in general. There are more than 100 of them available–you’ll have to visit the app store to find them (or build your own), but within video chat they help you create notes, share multimedia, add and monitor friends, and more.
Teams does a great job of keeping everything easily available, and you’ll seldom have to click more than one tab to find what you’re looking for. It’s also easy to navigate between screen and app sharing and your main conversation, and overall the whole experience flows as well as any video conferencing app you’ll find.
Teams is more than video calling, however. Like Slack, it is designed as a communications hub, keeping you connected and updated about your projects, colleagues, and external collaborators. We think it’s this broader experience that will ultimately settle the battle between Slack and Microsoft.
Will Microsoft’s Gamble Pay Off?
VC Daily will bring you a comprehensive comparison between the video calling abilities of Slack and Teams in the near future, but at first look, Teams seems to have a significant edge in terms of this specific feature (you can read our review of Slack here). The long years spent toiling behind the Skype brand may have given Microsoft a better understanding of what video callers want, and how to put all the necessary features within quick reach.
Slack wasn’t built to focus on video conferencing, however, and its rapid spread through the business world indicates that its primary function of linking employees in real-time is working. Microsoft is clearly behind in that regard, but it can be confident that the quality of its video platform, coupled with the appeal and name recognition of Office 365, will make it a worthy challenger.
It’s strange to think of Microsoft as the underdog in any fight–well, at least one that doesn’t involve Apple–but once you try Teams, you may well agree they’re unlikely to be second-choice for long.