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Facebook’s Workplace embraces video, touts new users amid pandemic

Workplace, Facebook’s enterprise collaboration offering, got a variety of new features this week designed to strengthen the platform and help users better collaborate during the ongoing pandemic.

As for Workplace, Facebook said the app now has more than 5 million paid users – with 2 million added since October 2019. That pace of growth is in line with reports from other collaboration and videoconferencing companies, which have rapidly gained new users this year during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Launched in late 2016, Workplace offers companies a collaboration platform that mirrors many of the features offered by Facebook, including groups, a news feed and live video capabilities – repurposed to fit the needs of business users. This week’s announcements focused on improving how users can collaborate via video through integrations with Facebook’s Portal and Oculus features.

Continued growth among collaborative tool makers is likely to continue, according to Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight. Even as some workers return to the office, she said, social distancing will remain a top priority, requiring many to continue to work from home.

“This is going to be the picture for the next couple of years most likely, so remote work will remain a major part of working life,” she said.

Julien Codorniou, vice president of Workplace, said that while the COVID-19 pandemic heated up demand for collaborative work platforms, he was still surprised by the number of companies that were caught off guard. Like Ashenden, he said enterprises have now recognized the importance of keping their employees “connected, informed, engaged and productive.”

Reflecting that stance internally, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the social media company will permanently embrace remote working, even after current lockdowns lift. He told Facebook employees Thursday that the company would be “aggressively opening up remote hiring” and he expects about half the workforce to work remotely over the next five to 10 years.

Facebook workers have until Jan. 1, 2021 to decide on their new work location.

The importance of videoconferencing

To help bolster a crowded market that includes the likes of Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, Google Meet and other, Workplace is pushing toward easier-to-use, and more efficient videoconferencing.

Ashenden said the new Workplace features reflect the success its competitors have seen. “It does mark a major pivot for Workplace…, and it will be interesting to track how quickly this becomes a primary driver for Workplace investments,” she said.

Users can now set up ‘Workplace Rooms’ – essentially an enterprise version of Facebook’s Messenger Rooms launched last month. In these new rooms, teams can host planned and spontaneous video calls via the desktop, mobile or the Workplace app on Portal. Users can invite individuals without Workplace accounts to join these calls; use Portal TV for Workplace video calls;  set up a Workplace Room on Portal; and use Workplace Live on Portal.

The company also bolstered its Workplace Live offering, providing users with an improved production values, controls and interactivity. One notable feature: the ability to turn on live captioning and transcription, a service that operates in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.

With many companies having employees in different countries – and speaking different languages –the new feature should allow employees who work together but don’t speak the same language to better connect, Codorniou said, leading to more productivity.

Users who broadcast live via Workplace will also be able to host live Q&As and crowd-source questions from the audience.

VR capabilities

The Workplace changes include new virtual reality (VR) capabilities built around Facebook’s virtual reality division, Oculus. Though it began largely as a consumer product, VR is increasingly being used by companies for training and education; Workplace claims more than 400 Oculus business apps now exist and can be integrated with the platform.

Ashenden believes the biggest opening for VR adoption is now in the enterprise. “This market is really driving the development and direction of these devices, much more than, say, gaming is on the consumer side,” she said.

Microsoft has had some success with its HoloLens, making it logical for Workplace to give users the opportunity to more easily use Oculus. Workplace has also seen demand for the service from its customers.

“If you go to Walmart, they have Oculus devices in every store in the U.S. to teach employees how to organize the display of the shelves and to do security or emergency training sessions as well,” Codorniou said. “In pharmaceutical companies or companies like Johnson & Johnson, they use Oculus for 3D simulation, for designing new products and for teaching doctors how to operate.”

More broadly speaking, advances in collaboration and videoconferencing tools are here to stay, said Ashenden.

“This is how work will be now, it’s what people will expect from an employer, and it will also be viewed as a core component in providing business continuity going forward,” she said.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Edge embraces Chrome’s kill-Flash timetable

Microsoft now says the new “full-Chromium” Edge will use the same kill-Flash calendar as Google’s Chrome, the vastly more popular browser that also relies on Chromium.

Earlier, Microsoft had created its own timetable for purging the media player software, which Adobe will retire at the end of 2020. But once Microsoft decided to discard homegrown browser technologies for those crafted by the Google-dominated Chromium open-source project, the company was expected to fall in line with its rival.

“In the next version of Microsoft Edge (built on Chromium), we will continue to retire Flash in the same timeframe as other Chromium-based browsers,” Colleen Williams, a senior program manager on the Edge team, wrote last week in a post to a company blog.

Google disabled Flash by default in Chrome 76, the version that debuted at the end of July. The only way users can run the player is if they switch it on in Settings > Advanced > Privacy and security > Site Settings > Flash > Ask First. IT administrators can also set the browser’s Flash capabilities using group policies.

Still to come for Chrome: Excising the ability to run Flash in any way, shape or form. That is currently slated to take place in December 2020, with Chrome 87.

Microsoft’s adoption of Chrome’s calendar meant that Edge already handles Flash the same way as Google’s browser. The Beta build of Edge, for instance, blocks Flash by default but lets users turn it on through Settings > Site Permissions > Adobe Flash > Ask before running Flash.

The Redmond, Wash. firm also clarified what it intends to do with Flash in the original Edge and Internet Explorer (IE), a pair of now-legacy browsers.

“For both the in-market version of Microsoft Edge (built on EdgeHTML) and Internet Explorer 11, the current experience will continue as-is through 2019,” said Williams of Microsoft. “Specifically, we no longer intend to update either Microsoft Edge (built on EdgeHTML) or Internet Explorer 11 to disable Flash by default.” However, Microsoft still intends to strip remove all support for Flash from IE11 and old Edge by the end of next year.

Microsoft’s decision to not monkey with Flash in IE11 and the original Edge reinforced the notion that the browsers have a bleak future.

IE11 has served a legacy role since early 2016, when Microsoft said that it was halting feature development. IE11’s usage now is almost entirely within the enterprise, where it may still be needed to run older web apps and intranet sites. But Microsoft has added an “IE mode” to full-Chromium Edge, likely making a stand-alone IE11 redundant. And while the company has said that it will continue to provide old-Edge for Windows 10 users, there has been no pledge to do that long term.

It seems problematic for Microsoft to support three native browsers in Windows 10 –  IE11, old-Edge, full-Chromium Edge – or four if one counts IE mode. Once full-Chromium Edge reaches the Stable milestone, why would Microsoft keep the original in play? It went to Chromium because the original Edge was effectively dead, accounting for just 10% of all Windows 10 browsers at the start of 2019. And why maintain a separate IE11 when Edge’s mode serves the same purpose?

Microsoft may claim that IE11 will “continue to follow the specific lifecycle policy for the operating system for which it is installed,” but it’s inconceivable that the company will indefinitely prop up the browser in Windows 10, supposedly the last version of Windows ever.

Expect both IE11 and the original Edge to disappear before Adobe buries Flash in a digital cemetery.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Slack embraces email to bridge chat app gap

SAN FRANCISCO – Slack users will soon be able to communicate with colleagues that use only email with the launch of a new “email bridge” feature for the company’s popular collaboration software. 

That email bridge is one of a range of updates unveiled Wednesday at the Slack Frontiers user conference here; other announcements include a simple workflow automation tool and the extension of the Shared Channels beta preview to customers of its Enterprise Grid product. 

The bridge is aimed at workers who are unwilling to make the switch from email to Slack when co-workers have moved to the app. 

These team members will receive an email notification when they’re mentioned by their username in channels or are sent a direct message. They will not be able to see messages from other users in a channel however; for that they would need to login to Slack. Of course, to use the function, the email user would already have to be at least signed up to Slack.

“The email bridge will let companies migrate – or not migrate – at their own pace, but it will also enable the Slack users to still remain productive because they are using Slack and leveraging other integrations that help them do work,” said Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC. “So in many ways it is a win-win for everyone.”

Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight, said that while Slack has had success in gaining traction within organizations on a team-by-team basis, there will inevitably be some employees resistant to change. 

“You are always going to have people who push back, so the more you can reduce the friction of the pushback, the better,” she said. 

Slack email bridge Slack

Slack is connecting email and its own collaboration app in a bid to ease cross-app communications.

The email bridge follows a recent announcement about the ability to share emails from Google’s Gmail and Microsoft Outlook directly into Slack; it follows the company’s acquisition of email management app Astro last year.

“It responds to feedback we have had, particularly our large customers who have said: ‘We have a lot of people in Slack, a bunch or all of them work in Slack, but they are now separated from some who are still just in email and there is this gap between us – help us bridge that gap,’” said Andy Pflaum, director of product at Slack.

There are number of times where a colleague may have been invited into Slack but decided not to join a channel or conversation, said Pflaum. “They haven’t gotten around to it, or they just want to stay in email. And that is okay for now. But we want to make it so that those people can be connected to the conversations that are moving forward in Slack.”

Of course, Slack’s ultimate aim is to encourage users to move to its platform over time. “What is interesting is that they are positioning it as a pre-onboarding enablement, so it is more about getting people into Slack, it is not about allowing people to communicate long term,” said Ashenden. 

Outlook and Gmail will both be supported, with the feature becoming available to all users in the next few months.”

Slack also demoed the ability to let users respond to messages directly from their email inbox, with a response posted into Slack. No launch date for that feature, however, was given at Frontiers.

A Workflow Builder tool for the masses

Slack is also looking to make it a lot easier for all types of users to build their own simple workflow apps inside its platform using a “no-code” approach. 

Slack customers have already built hundreds of thousands of custom apps internally. But these generally require some level of technical know-how and are typically created by developers and IT staff. 

With the Workflow Builder tool, this process is streamlined, said Pflaum, saving employees time and reducing the demand on developer resources.

standalone workflow overview2x Slack

With Workflow Builder, Slack users will have access to a tool that lets them build their own simple workflow apps.

For instance, a simple on-boarding workflow could be set up so that new employees receive a welcome message and links to relevant corporate information when they are added to Slack. Another example would be the automation of a self-service form for any benefit requests from HR. The workflows can be created via an intuitive interface that lets users set triggers and actions similar to an If This Then That-style interface.

The feature follows Slack’s acquisition of Missions in 2018. “This is the emergence of their work to start to bring no-code and low-code tools to our users,” said Pflaum.

The Workflow Builder tool will be rolled out later this year, Slack said. Those interested in previewing the tool can sign up here.

“The ability to reduce friction and repetitive tasks now gets a bit easier,” said Kurtzman. “For those that are used to an ‘If This Then That’ scenario, they will able to walk in to this and see the potential uses in their work day. And because it is consumer-level simple in a business environment it means that it is not difficult to program, it is not difficult to change, it is not difficult to use, and yet it can save you a number of steps on any given project. 

“That is effective, that is something that people can see the value of, and that is why over time it will be adopted,” he said.

Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight, noted that Slack has been successful at encouraging developers to create apps, and Workflow Builder is part of its effort to appeal to a wider audience of professionals, whether in sales, marketing, HR or other areas of an organization. 

“Increasingly what Slack wants to do is to spread the application much more widely across organizations,” she said. “[Workflow Builder] allows individuals – it doesn’t matter who they are –  to be able to create their own personal workflows or teams workflows. It has opened up a whole new wave of potential for the platform.”

It is “not just about collaborating, but getting work done and coordinating work and processes,” she said. “So I think it is much more interesting as Slack tries to spread into the organization as a whole and getting out of this pocket of IT that it has made its name from.”

Enterprise Grid gets Shared Channels beta

Slack also announced that of its Shared Channels feature will be available to more customers, with Enterprise Grid users able to apply for access to the beta product. 

Shared Channels was announced at Frontiers in 2017, enabling interactions with external users, such as service providers or clients, without the need for guest access. 

The beta has proved popular: 13,000 of Slack’s paid customers have already signed up to test the service.

However, it has taken longer to arrive for large customers using Enterprise Grid due to the greater complexity, said Slack.

“There is a certain complexity when there are many workspaces for administering and determining how you manage those shared channels,” said Pflaum. “The largest customers are the ones who could potentially have their shared channels fan out to the largest number of end points and we wanted to be careful and deliberate in the way we did that [to make sure it is a] well-tested experience for them.”

Kurtzman agreed that bringing Shared Channels to Enterprise Grid is a bigger challenge given the size of deployments and requirements around compliance. “They only get one chance to roll this out at the Enterprise Grid level, and no doubt … they wanted to do it so that it maintains or improves security, and the way they are rolling it out makes perfect sense.” 

Enterprise Grid users will be able to sign up to the beta this summer. Slack did not say when general availability would roll out.

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