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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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20 Slack tips, tricks and hacks for power users

Slack users tend to be passionate about the popular collaboration tool. “Slack has changed the way we communicate internally,” says Rob Shapiro, senior director of product strategy for Muck Rack, a digital PR and journalism platform. Slack’s easier access to shared files, discussion areas and notifications “made our team smarter, faster and more in tune with one another,” he adds.

That passion also tends to lead users to find ways to get even more from the app, which can be downloaded for Windows, for Mac and Linux.

We asked people from the Slack user community (as well as the company itself) for their top tips, tricks and hacks. These are 20 of their favorites.

(Note: The majority of these tips are aimed at desktop users, though some Slack tips apply to the mobile app as well.)

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Microsoft claims ‘inflection point’ for remote work as Teams surges to 44 million daily active users

Demand for Microsoft Teams has surged to 44 million daily active users, the company said on Thursday, with an additional 12 million users in the past week as workers across the world begin to work from home in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Adoption of Teams has grown swiftly in the past 12 months, reaching 20 million users as recently as November.

The recent increase in home working has occurred as workers across the world self-isolate to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with many businesses requiring staff to work from home. This has led to a huge uptick in demand for video and team chat applications such as Zoom, Slack and Teams. At the same time, various vendors have announced free access to certain collaboration software product features, while Microsoft announced today that all UK National Health Service staff will have free access to Teams.

“The increase in numbers I think makes a lot of sense considering the pivot we have started to see over remote work since February,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at research firm Creative Strategies.

Rising adoption will have a longer-term effect on working practices, Microsoft said as it released the latest user figures for Teams on the third anniversary of the application’s launch, with remote collaboration becoming more commonplace.

Recent use cases include doctors consulting with patients via Teams, Microsoft said, while teachers are using the app to connect with students as schools close in many countries.

“I really do think this is an inflection point, and we’re going to look back and realize this is where it all changed,” said Jared Spataro, corporate vice president of Microsoft 365, in a pre-recorded press briefing. “We’re never going to go back to working the way that we did.”

Teams, which is available at no extra cost for business subscribers of Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud productivity suite, was launched in 2017 and has become Microsoft’s core communication tool, replacing Skype for Business Online. 

The collaboration platform is Microsoft’s response to the runaway success of Slack, which launched six years ago and popularized channel-based communications with its workstream collaboration app. Slack, a standalone tool with a free tier and paid tiers, has 12 million daily active users. The company has hotly contested Microsoft’s user statistic claims.

Teams contrasts from Slack in various ways, however, incorporating voice and videoconferencing and document editing capabilities in addition to group chat. The breadth of features available in Teams — similar in that respect to Cisco’s suite of tools — could provide an advantage over independent point solutions such as Slack and Zoom, said Milanesi.

These “best-of-breed” products integrate tightly with each other — with Slack and Zoom striking up a close partnership in recent years — as well as with many other third-party applications.

But while Slack has benefited from its ground-up viral adoption in the past, many large organizations, especially those that already use Office 365, may find it more expedient to roll out Teams to connect staff at short notice.

“At the time when a fast and efficient rollout is needed, IT might find it easier to turn to Microsoft (or Cisco) rather than a Slack or a Zoom,” Milanesi said. “That top-down approach that might have hurt Teams in the past might actually favor them at this time.”

New Teams features

Microsoft also announced a range of feature updates to Teams on Thursday.

Real-time noise suppression will help reduce background noise for video meeting participants, while a “raise hand” feature makes it easier for everyone to get their say during group calls. This builds on other video features added to Teams since it incorporated Skype for Business’s functionality, such as live captioning and background blur.

Other features announced include an offline mode and low-bandwidth support that will make it easier to continue chat conversations without a good internet connection; pop-out chat windows; integration with RealWear head-mounted displays for frontline workers; and Microsoft 365 Business Voice, which offers small and midsized business a complete phone system in Teams.

An integration with Microsoft’s Bookings app will make it easier for healthcare consultants to arrange video meetings with patients. 

Milanesi said Microsoft is making solid progress as it competes with others in the video meeting software market. 

“Teams seems to be catching up with Zoom on some features like backgrounds and raise hand, but overall I think Teams feels like a more polished solution in the way it comes together,” she said. Teams has as an advantage in its “verticalized cloud and AI approach that allows [Microsoft] to deploy solutions like the real-time noise suppression,” she added.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Slack targets non-tech users with UI design tweaks

Slack has unveiled a range of changes to its team chat app aimed at creating a simpler and more intuitive user experience, as it targets a wider range of users. This includes a message “compose” button, easier navigation and customizable sidebars.

Early adopters of Slack tended to be tech professionals working in IT or software development. But as use of Slack has boomed in the six years since its launch — with 12 million daily active users, including at many large enterprise businesses — the types of workers relying on the app for collaborating with colleagues has evolved. After tech professionals, the fastest growing use cases are now in sales, marketing, and customer support, said Slack.

“Slack is going more wall to wall,” said Ilan Frank, head of enterprise product at Slack, referring to deployments of the application across entire companies. “As we do that, one of the things we are seeing is that less technical users have different expectations of Slack.

“The mission continues to be the same; to make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasurable and more productive. What’s changing are the people.”

Newbie-friendly features

The aim of the features announced on Wednesday is to smooth the transition for workers adopting Slack as a new way of working.

Taking its cue from email client apps, a “compose” button placed at the top left of the app lets users start a message before deciding the person or channel to send it to. And, as with email apps, the draft message will be automatically saved if left unfinished.

slack march2020 update compose screen Slack

The “compose” feature will be familiar to users as they switch from email to Slack. (Click image to enlarge it.)

This should make Slack less intimidating for new users who might be overwhelmed by the numerous channels and direct messaging options available to them.

“We wanted to remove that stress when you come into Slack where it’s like ‘wait a second, now you have to decide which channel you should write it into,’” said Frank. “In this case, when you click on the ‘compose’ button you get a panel that allows you to type your new message. Only after writing the message and keeping it as a draft would you then have to pick a DM or a channel to put it in.”

He added: “You could actually think about a future when Slack actually suggests channels for you to communicate in, based on what you have written and where you will get the most effective response.”

Another addition to the navigation bar is a pair of arrow buttons to move back and forth between channels, rather than relying on keyboard shortcuts. Only a small proportion of users actually use keyboard shortcuts, Slack said. Beside the navigation arrows, a clock icon will show browsing history to let users jump to previous channels quickly.

The sidebar panel can also now be customized, with the ability to create folder-like sections. Users do this by dragging and dropping channels, direct messages and apps to categorize and prioritize them. Sections can be created for a specific project or just to group new “urgent” conversations.

slack march2020 update sidebar sections Slack

Sections in the sidebar can be opened up or collapsed by clicking on the small triangle button to the left. (Click image to enlarge it.)

The ability to tap into third-party apps, such as videoconferencing or polling tools, is an important part of the Slack experience for many users, with more than 1,800 third-party integrations available, aside from apps and workflows created internally. But these don’t always feel accessible to new users. The addition of a “lightning bolt” button in the message input field serves as a shortcut to access apps without switching between windows.

Team collaboration becoming mainstream

Demand for team collaboration tools has grown significantly in recent years, with channel-based communications offering an alternative to email for interactions with co-workers, as well as aiding collaboration with remote workers. The market for social software and collaboration in the workplace is set to reach $4.8 billion in 2023, according to Gartner.

Slack’s success attracted others to the market, most notably Microsoft, which launched its rival application Teams in 2017.

Although Microsoft is a significant rival, Slack has publicly welcomed the competition, claiming it is a validation of channel-based communications (although it has also hotly contested Microsoft’s user adoption claims).

Larry Cannell, a research director at Gartner, said that Slack’s updates are part of a wider and longer-term “mainstreaming” of products like Slack and Teams.

This is necessary for two reasons, he said: “First, to make them more approachable and less intimidating for nontechnical users. Not everyone is comfortable with things like slash commands or can remember where to find a useful feature. These tools need to work for late adopters.”

Second, he said, these products must be able to evolve along with the ways users incorporate them into daily workflow. “Think of how different Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat are today because of what features users most leveraged. This is a constantly changing dance between form and function,” he said.

The new Slack interface features will begin rolling out today and be completed in the next “several weeks.” The features will be available to users on all Slack payment tiers, including the free version, although the sidebar channel sections will only be available on paid plans.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Data confirms: Given control, users opt for just one Windows 10 upgrade per year

After Microsoft gave all customers control over when they upgrade Windows 10, the majority of users decided they didn’t need a twice-annual refresh, data shows.

According to metrics vendor AdDuplex, once Microsoft let users of Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro determine the cadence of OS upgrades, each upgrade’s increase siphoned more users from the version of 12 months before than it did from the upgrade’s immediate predecessor.

For example, Windows 10 version 1903 climbed from 11.4% of all versions in July 2019 to 33% in August. Of the 21.6-percentage point increase, 20.6 points — representing 95% of the total — came at the expense of Windows 10 1803, the feature upgrade issued a year earlier. Just 1 percentage point, or about 5%, of the declines that fueled the increase of Windows 10 1903 originated with Windows 10 1809.

The implication: Left to their own devices, users left Windows 10 alone for a year, the maximum time Microsoft allowed them to run any individual Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro version.

Given a choice, Windows 10 users rejected Microsoft’s longtime contention that operating systems should be updated on an aggressive tempo — necessary, the Redmond, Wash. firm said, to keep up with constant technology change.

First, a brief recap of what Microsoft did last year

AdDuplex’s numbers were no surprise. Computerworld — and many other media outlets, as well as analysts and pundits — had predicted that Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro users would, given the chance, reject the twice-annual upgrade cadence Microsoft had established.

That cadence was established in April 2017 and committed Microsoft to releasing two Windows 10 upgrades each year, one in March, another in September. Prior, the tempo had been unpredictable — Microsoft delivered only one upgrade the year before, for instance — which enterprise customers found untenable.

Under that scheme, Microsoft decided when each Windows 10 Home PC and each unmanaged Windows 10 Pro PC was upgraded to a new version. (By unmanaged, we mean devices not handled by IT administrators.) Those machines, especially the ones running Windows 10 Home, went through the refresh process at six-month intervals because their users were not able to defer, much less decline, an upgrade.

However, 11 months ago Microsoft threw that practice out the window. Instead, it let users of Home and Pro decide when to pull the upgrade trigger through a new “Download and install now” option. Each release would be publicized, but users would choose when to migrate to a new version.

There would be one catch: Citing the need to keep PCs up to date, Microsoft announced that when “Windows 10 devices are at, or will soon reach, end of service, Windows Update will continue to automatically initiate a feature update.” At some point, then, Microsoft would revert to its earlier behavior of automatically downloading and installing a feature upgrade.

It became apparent that Microsoft would begin these forced upgrades — labeled that to differentiate them from those the user initiated — approximately four months before the version in question was due to exit support. (Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro were allotted 18 months of support, with the clock starting at release.) Microsoft would replace the version then powering the PC with the most recent Windows 10 release.

Because of this timing, if users didn’t call on the “Download and install now” option, Microsoft’s mandated upgrades resulted in a once-a-year refresh.

Here’s an example: A PC that ran Windows 10 1803, which launched in April 2018 and received support until November 2019, was not upgraded by its owner. Instead, Microsoft began to forcibly refresh 1803 systems in July 2019. By that time — and through the end of Microsoft’s we’ll-upgrade-that-for-you campaign in November — the newest version, the one with the most support remaining, was Windows 10 1903. That version debuted in May 2019 and is slated to exit support in December.

When Windows 10 1903 gets close to retirement — say, four months prior, or around mid-August — the latest version will be Windows 10 2004, the upgrade that will release at any moment.

The data highlights how upgrade practice changed

The pattern of versions’ increases and decreases changed dramatically when Microsoft modified its upgrade policies.

Windows 10 1803, for example, like the upgrades that preceded it, grew its share of the total at the expense of its immediate forerunner, Windows 10 1709.

From November 2017 to December, Windows 10 1709 increased from 20.4% to 53.6%, a jump of 33.4 percentage points. The vast majority of that gain came from Windows 10 1703, which plummeted from 63.5% to 33.7%, for a fall of 29.8 percentage points, representing 89% of 1709’s increase, during the same stretch. The version two back from 1709, 2016’s Windows 10 1607, contributed just 2.9 percentage points, or only about 9% of 1709’s growth.

That had been the original framework when Microsoft compelled upgrades every six months. Each Windows 10 refresh gained share by cannibalizing the version prior; as the former grew, the latter shrank.

Giving users control of upgrade timing, though, made the majority of them lazy: They let Microsoft do its forced upgrade a year later. Like the earlier example of Windows 10 1903, the most recent version, Windows 10 1909, also illustrated the new normal. Rather than drain the immediate predecessor (1903), 1909 assembled most of its growth from the year-before’s 1809.

From January to February, Windows 10 1909 went from 15.2% to 22.6%, a 7.4-point boost. Most came from Windows 10 1809, which slumped from 22% to 16.4%, a fall of 5.6 percentage points, or about 76% of the total in the same month-to-month period. The upgrade just one back from 1909 (last May’s 1903) declined just eight-tenths of a percentage point from January to February. Assuming 1903’s slip went to 1909, the former represented a paltry 11% of the latter’s increase.

There’s no reason to think the next upgrade, Windows 10 2004, will be any different. When it gains users, they’ll largely be yanked from 1903 by Microsoft, especially from mid-August to the end of the year, the last four months of 1903’s support.

It’s unclear if Microsoft anticipated this shift when it changed the upgrade rules for Windows 10 Home and unmanaged Windows 10 Pro; the company has not as much as hinted at its expectations. That’s understandable, as to do so would be to acknowledge that its rapid development and release rhythm, core to its Windows-as-a-service mantra for Windows 10, has not been completely accepted by customers.

True, annual upgrades remain approximately three times more frequent than pre-Windows 10 editions of the OS. But they’re only half that of the intended pace.

To come up with its Windows 10 version numbers, AdDuplex mined data from third-party Windows Store apps that used the Lithuanian company’s SDK.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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