We first heard about Shared Channels a while back — a quick search yields a TechCrunch article from March 2016, but I seem to recall even earlier rumors.
The anticipation of the Shared Channels feature helped all of us at Sameroom avoid focusing on the Slack-to-Slack use case too seriously, since it was just a matter of time before our version became démodé.
Or, so we thought!
After attending a detailed demo at the Frontiers conference yesterday and learning a bit more about the feature, I have reasons to believe capitulation is premature.
At the demo area, there were three large tables with two beautiful iMacs on each. When I walked up to one of the tables and requested to see Shared Channels, the host explained that each station represents a separate company — Marketing Consultants, Engineering Consultants, and the mothership firm itself (his table) — and proposed that we send a message to the Marketing company.
He joined one of the shared channels in the mothership firm's Slack team and posted a message.
My eyes automatically wandered to the second iMac on our table, but it was asleep.
"So, did it work?" I asked.
"Yeah, let's go find the other team, I'm actually not sure which table it's at," said the host.
There was some crowding at the other tables, so we had to wait in line.
Twice, since the Marketing table ended up being the second one.
When we found the other team, and the correct Shared Channel within it, I had my confirmation: it worked!
The host then posted a response.
When we walked back to the original station to make sure the response got across, we had to wait for a small group of conference goers to free up the iMac.
To botch a demo of one of the most revolutionary Slack features ever launched this badly suggests that the company has not necessarily internalized the potential behind the concept, which may spell friction in marketing, support, and further development. Further observations, listed below, seem to contribute to this suspicion.
Paid Teams Only
Shared Channels are only available to paid teams (once the feature leaves Beta and enters GA, that is). Sameroom, on the other hand, can be easily used to create Tubes — our version of Shared Channels — between free Slack teams. (This does not mean an entirely free lunch, unfortunately, since Sameroom is not free.)
And now, it's time for a minor confession: I've known about Slack since February 2013 and I have never been a member of a paid Slack team. I'm not your usual Slack user, obviously, but the number of folks who rely on the product almost as much as they rely on oxygen and have absolutely no intention of ever paying for Slack is truly, obscenely, staggering.
This is why Slack began tightening the screws by hiding actual features — not just access to history or method of authentication — behind a paywall.
While I fully understand the rationale, I believe hiding real features from free users is a strategic mistake, since Slack's primary challenge, as it stands, isn't necessarily to make money, but to transform workplace communication from phone calls, emails, and faxes to the bliss of ever-searchable, always-available, omni-modal, self-categorizing organizational memory.
And so, I'm experiencing a bit of a déjà vu.
The first amazing, transformational feature Slack tucked away was User Groups. This is one of the main reasons why, in the humble opinion of this industry observer, the feature remains essentially unused, since most teams that upgrade from the free tier are likely to be very mature, with all the integrations and workflows long established.
Another likely reason for User Groups to have seen underwhelming adoption is the requirement that admins be intimately involved with their management.
Speaking of admins, for Shared Channels, it's...
Admins Only, on Both Ends
It's understandable to only allow Slack administrators the ability to initiate and accept Shared Channels — anything else can be viewed as a security risk.
When we pitch Sameroom to CIOs, they often ask about the option to clamp down on their users' ability to share internal chatrooms and channels with the outside world. Our response is always the same: let them do it, but make sure that a) you know about them doing it by subscribing to the Sameroom Security Log and b) tell your users that you know they're doing it.
In our experience, the overwhelming majority of cross-organizational Sameroom connections are initiated and accepted by non-admins.
To draw an extreme analogy, asking an admin to configure a Shared Channel is akin to asking an admin to send a group email that includes recipients from a different domain — and to get an admin from that other domain to accept it.
It's very likely, that with a feature like Shared Channels, erring on the side of minimizing a perceived security risk will drive a major wedge into usability.
Now, about domains: just imagine if you could only send a group email to members of only one other company? Ouch! And yet...
Only One Other Company Can Share Your Channel
It's true! You can only share a Slack channel with at most one other company.
If you need to get your Marketing Firm and your Design Shop in the same space, you have to use Sameroom, email, or Skype.
While this is a major limitation, the overwhelming majority of users will find it acceptable for the time being. In our experience, most complex Sameroom topologies involve a public IRC or Gitter channel, where, say, multiple companies want to keep track of #python on Freenode from their Slack, HipChat, or Google Hangouts.
It goes without saying, but...
Shared Slack Channels are for Slack Users Only
Fate has it so that, in 2017, Slack is only going to share its channels with Slack.
Interoperability is dead and gets deader with each new arrival into the team messaging camp (we're expecting Atlassian's HipChat replacement, Stride, and Google's Hangouts Chat to diversify the pool of available protocols further, later this year).
As dreadful as it is, this escalating impasse has created an interesting niche for us at Sameroom, where we will continue to quietly translate and forward messages and files between teams, no matter where their work happens.