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Slack Introduces Voice Calling Feature in Beta
Posted March 3, 2016
Slack Introduces Voice Calling Feature in Beta
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By Shirley Siluk. Updated March 3, 2016 10:34AM

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Team collaboration platform Slack already offers support for voice calls through integration with other services like Skype, but it's now rolling out its own real-time calling feature in beta. The Calls feature -- currently just on the desktop and only with audio for now -- will be available to all teams by the end of this week, the company said in a tweet yesterday.

Voice calls can be launched from either a Slack channel or direct message by clicking a telephone icon. Calls supports both one-to-one conversations and group discussions.

Eventually the voice-calling feature will be extended to video, screen sharing and mobile support as well, Slack said. The new services have been expected for some time, as Slack last year acquired Screenhero -- an online service for voice, video and screen sharing -- for an undisclosed amount.

Integrating Screenhero a 'Massive Undertaking'

Just over two years old, Slack has grown rapidly to reach a daily active user base of 2.3 million. Often touted as an "e-mail killer," Slack's technology enables both real-time and asynchronous conversations between individuals or teams. It has been integrated with numerous other messaging and collaboration apps, including Skype, Google Plus Hangouts, Dropbox and Twitter.

Slack was "far and away" the fastest-growing app among its business customers between May and August, according to last year's "Businesses at Work" report from online identity management service provider Okta. It is also the fastest-ever tech company to achieve "unicorn" status, meaning it was valued at $1 billion or more.

When it announced its pending acquisition by Slack last January, Screenhero said it expected to spend several months working to bring "our unique flavor of voice, video, and screen sharing to Slack, to make the joint product the best of both worlds. Since Slack is on Mac and Windows (like Screenhero) as well as iOS, Android, and the Web, this is a massive undertaking, but one that we're excited to take on."

Slack's High Adoption Rates, Mixed Results

According to cloud IT firm BetterCloud's first-ever "Trends in Cloud IT" survey, released today, a majority of the companies polled already use more than two real-time messaging applications for business communications. Slack had the highest adoption rates of any of the applications covered in the survey, with 65 percent of respondents saying they began using the app within the previous 12 months.

Despite the benefits of real-time messaging, BetterCloud found that such apps can at times reduce, rather than increase, on-the-job productivity.

"Slack users most commonly spot decreased productivity, but only slightly," the report noted. "The advanced functionality of the Slack platform may be contributing to the loss of productivity. Users can do more like quickly send GIFs or create channels dedicated to non-work related topics, meaning there are more avenues for distraction."

However, 95 percent of Slack users said the app has improved communication in their organizations, according to BetterCloud. With Slack now rolling out voice-based calling and -- eventually, video calls and screen sharing as well -- it remains to be seen how the app might affect productivity in the future.

Vanessa Thompson, research vice president for collaboration and communication at the analyst firm IDC, told us that Slack's move into voice and -- eventually -- video was no great surprise.

"Escalation to voice and video from a team collaboration solution is almost becoming table stakes as many other solutions already have this capability embedded," Thompson said. "It does strengthen Slack’s position but it only brings it in line with other solutions that already have this capability (and there is a long list)."

Thompson added that Slack's entry into new communication territory isn't likely to pose a threat to Skype for Business, which enjoys the added value propositions of high-end PSTN conferencing (i.e., dial-in conferencing) and cloud PBX (i.e., a phone system that uses the internet or Voice over IP) services as well as its add-on to Microsoft's Office 365.

Image Credit: Screenshot for voice-calling feature via Slack.

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