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The war between the giants of the technology industry for the attention of the world’s office workers looks like it is about to take an unexpected turn.
Fundamental changes in the daily lives of millions of so-called “information workers” have already triggered a corresponding upheaval in the technology tools on which they rely. Staples such as email and Microsoft’s Office suite of products still hold sway, but they are increasingly being supplemented by services like group chat, internal social networks and shared online document editing.
The prospect of a giant consumer internet company invading office life is not new. Google has already ridden the rise of the internet into the working world, with its Gmail service and a cloud-based equivalent to Microsoft’s Office suite of software tools. Yet for most white-collar workers, still tied to their PCs, Office still reigns supreme.
The spread of mobile devices is forcing deeper changes, particularly in the way groups of workers communicate and share information. The result has been a deeper challenge to Microsoft’s grip on the software of working life.
For seven years after the launch of Apple’s iPhone, Microsoft left its mobile flank exposed, holding Office back from devices made by other companies in a failed attempt to stimulate demand for its own Windows-based mobile gadgets. But even its decision to reverse course this month and make Office free on Apple devices may not be enough to give it the foothold in mobile it needs.
“The problem is not that Office is too expensive, it’s that Office isn’t relevant to the way people want to work,” says Phil Libin, chief executive of Evernote, a mobile-centric service for storing and organising personal information that claims 100m active users, 70 per cent of whom use it at work.
The needs of workers are changing fast, admits Julia White, general manager of marketing for Office. Mobile access is expected. Communication between groups of employees has become far more open, while collaboration around work happens instantly. The sheer volume of information, for many workers, has become overwhelming.
One result is that barriers are breaking down between, on the one hand, networking and collaboration tools, and, on the other, services for creating and editing documents, says Mr Libin.
“You don’t need different tools for communicating and for writing,” he says, describing the separation of these activities into different software applications as a relic of the days when visions of technology were dominated by the telephone and the typewriter.
As the pressure on workers mounts, the many tools for creating, storing, sharing and collaborating are starting to converge. It is “less about collision and more about integrating different services”, says Aaron Levie, chief executive of Box, which runs a cloud storage service for companies. “If Facebook at work takes off, they will want to get to your data in Box, and edit it with Office,” he says.
That reflects how new business software markets often start out, with “best of breed” suppliers dominating different technology niches. Once these markets mature, however, consolidation often leaves dominant suppliers in control, as happened with Office, says Mr Libin. “The centre of gravity will shift to platforms in a number of years,” he adds.
For now, with most new services in their infancy and dominant consumer companies such as Facebook and Google still to make an impact, that end-game seems a long way off.
As a result, new start-ups like Slack, whose service is used by groups of workers to communicate and share information from different sources, are growing like weeds between the paving stones of existing software products.
Many workers are also spending more of their time within online applications that are tailored to the needs of specific jobs. Some of these are “horizontal” services such as Salesforce’s customer relationship management service or Github’s platform for software developers.
Others are “vertical” ones that are geared to specific industries or professions, such as the Doximity service used by 40 per cent of US doctors, and Edmodo, used by 3.5m teachers.
“You can collaborate much more effectively when you join people who have done similar things,” says Manish Kothari, general manager of platform at Edmodo.
Slack’s rapid growth – it claimed 300,000 active users each day, double the number of three months ago – is partly an indication that workers need a new place to post and communicate about the data thrown up by many of these new applications, says co-founder Stewart Butterfield. This casts the company as the “news feed” of online working life, much the same role that Facebook plays in the consumer world.
The companies that become the hubs for this kind of activity are hoping to cast themselves as central platforms for working life.
LinkedIn, which styles itself as the world’s largest professional social network, could also be threatened if Facebook succeeds in connecting employees with people outside their company. However, the majority of LinkedIn’s revenue comes from recruiters, a market Facebook does not appear to be targeting. The site also does not offer collaboration tools or the ability to chat with colleagues.
Meanwhile, Microsoft, under new chief executive Satya Nadella, who has made productivity tools for workers central to his strategy, is trying to make up for lost time. Much depends on converting users of Office on the PC into subscribers of Office 365, its new online service: once more of their data are held online, Microsoft will be better positioned to create new services around it.
A nascent “groups” feature in Office 365, for instance, makes it possible for teams of workers to join open conversations that sit alongside their familiar Outlook email inboxes.
Microsoft is also hoping to extract information from workers’ online documents, calendars and communications to create what it calls an “Office graph” of their most important interactions – an echo of the “social graph” that underpins Facebook’s network of personal connections.
The first applications that draw on this new trove of data have started to appear in recent weeks: they include Delve, which aims to show useful documents and information that is “trending” around fellow workers when their names are entered, and Clutter, a way to automatically suppress inessential email.
Services such as these are designed to keep workers from being drawn away from Microsoft by other new “social” services, says Ms White. “If your tools meet your needs, you don’t need new tools,” she says.
Facebook will face other challenges as it looks to break into the world of work. The demanding security requirements of customers, strict rules about how their data are managed and the need to integrate with companies’ existing IT systems will all impose a heavy burden, says Rob Koplowitz, analyst at Forrester Research. “I’m not sure if I had a billion and a quarter users turning to me in their personal lives and the massive consumer opportunity associated with that, that I would want to slug it out in the enterprise,” he says.
But it is hard to argue with demographics. A generation that came of age using social networks and mobile messaging apps, rather than the Word documents and email used by their parents, is likely to exert a powerful influence over working life.
“If you look at the disruption that’s happened on the consumer [internet] side, you’d expect it to creep into the enterprise as well,” says Brett Taylor, a former Facebook chief technology officer who now runs Quip, another new collaboration service for office workers.
If Facebook’s plans bear fruit, the world of work, for millions of people, may never be the same again.
Profiles of the established and the newcomers
The FT’s Hannah Kuchler in New York takes a look at the big groups in office communication and some of the leading lights in the new generation of enterprise companies.
The Silicon Valley group’s email service has more than 500m monthly active users, with many companies preferring their easy-to-search webmail that can be used anywhere, as opposed to the somewhat old-fashioned Outlook-style services that lived on the desktop.
Within Gmail, users can also use GChat as an internal and external office messaging service and Google Hangouts for video conferencing. Gmail is also integrated with Google Docs, which has 190m users, and offers more basic copies of the documents, spreadsheets and presentations programmes which make up Microsoft Office. Google charges for Gmail for business, which includes custom emails, more storage and round the clock support.
The original companion of the office worker, Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint programmes in the Office suite are still used around the world by about 1.2bn users.
As many of the programmes are not sold as a subscription, it does not know how many people use them regularly. More than 400m people get their email through Microsoft Outlook.
The company bought Yammer, a corporate social network designed for collaborating with colleagues, for $1.2bn two years ago and has integrated it with Office 365 Enterprise, the Office subscription service. It has not reported Yammer’s user numbers since the acquisition.
The 12-year-old professional networking site, has 90m monthly active users who visit it to make contacts with people who can help them do their job and – perhaps more significantly – help them get a new one.
With users presenting a CV-like profile to the world, LinkedIn has become a home for recruiters prowling to find what they see as “passive job candidates”, who are not actively looking but might take an opportunity when it is presented.
The company’s talent solutions business generates the majority of the total revenue by selling subscriptions with extra features to recruiters. It also produces editorial content, focused on management that it is able to target to relevant users.
The group has 1.35bn users logging on each month and 64 per cent of those use the site daily. More than 1bn use the Facebook app and the number of daily users on mobile has risen almost 40 per cent in the last year.
If it can persuade even a small fraction of their userbase to try the work-focused product, it could have a sizeable userbase that could compete with the new generation of enterprise companies – and depending on exactly how the product turns out, even the larger companies such as Google and Microsoft.
One of the niche social networks, Edmodo is helping to lead the way in combining the social with the core of people’s work.
It enables teachers to collaborate with other teachers to share lesson plans with peers on the other side of the country, teachers with students to assess their work and students with other students to encourage working together.
Edmodo has 3.5m teachers in the US and 43m users worldwide, mainly in English-speaking countries. It has had to ensure a high level of security to keep student data private, an issue that Facebook might encounter with Facebook at Work.
The new kid on the enterprise block, Slack combines the ease of a chat app (think WhatsApp, not Snapchat) with integration with other software services such as Google Docs and Dropbox.
The start-up says it has 300,000 active users each day after officially launching in February 2014. The product has already been adopted by many technology companies as a preferred means of internal communication, but it is not designed to communicate with outside contacts.
Its basic product is free but it charges for most integrations, larger teams and more storage.
Another vertical social network, Doximity focuses on doctors. Just four years after it was founded, Doximity boasts 40 per cent of all US doctors as users.
The verified medical practitioners flock to the platform as it is the only place that they can comply with strict regulations about sending patient data, without using a fax machine.
Doctors who have shared important information with each other on Doximity have then gone on to write medical papers together about their findings. More than 70 per cent of activity is on mobile phones, as doctors go about their working lives.
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