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Introduction

Enterprise chat, as a product category, seemed to emerge suddenly. That has led to misperceptions as to what enterprise chat actually is. Is it a hardened version of consumer chat applications such as WeChat, WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger? Is it really instant messaging on steroids in the manner of Microsoft Skype for Business? Or, as some vendors suggest, is it just a feature of a larger collaboration suite? It doesn’t help that many enterprise chat companies prefer to call their product a team communications app, or next generation, real-time, or secure messaging app. The different nomenclature coupled with the newness of the product category and it’s similarity to consumer messaging applications is creating confusion in the enterprise software market.

Despite the confusion, enterprise chat can be defined as an application that provides a multi-mode means for teams to communicate. It combines the real-time capabilities of instant messaging with the offline communication modes of enterprise social networks. Enterprise chat applications are purpose built for facilitating conversations, aggressively multi-platform, and with a user experience reminiscent of consumer messaging applications. Though the user experience is very similar to consumer applications, enterprise chat applications includes the administration, security, and integration features necessary to make them usable by enterprises of all sizes.Analysis

Much of the attention given to enterprise chat, has been because of Slack. A unicorn[1], Slack has shaped the discussion of the enterprise chat market through relentless marketing and news of its incredible fundraising, which was $320M as of May 30, 2015.

The beginnings of enterprise chat can be found before Slack, however, in a number of adjacent markets. Consumer chat applications, for example, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat grabbed the attention of consumers as an easier way to converse with friends. The basic user experience for enterprise chat, especially the idea of one-to-one and group conversations taking place primarily on mobile devices, was set in place by these consumer products.

Similarly, the enterprise collaboration and consumer space included enterprise instant messaging (IM), BlackBerry’s enterprise mobile messaging, and group conversations as a feature of unified communications and collaboration platforms. IM is still common and often included in unified communications platforms such as Microsoft Lync (recently renamed Skype for Business). Group conversations are foundational to enterprise social networks. A number of vendors still view enterprise chat as an extension or feature of these collaboration platforms.

The Tale of Two Companies

The approach of two companies, Jostle and Jive, highlights how muddy the waters are when it comes to enterprise chat as a product category. On the surface, the chat function within Jostle and the Jive Chime application look quite similar. However, the core philosophy driving their implementation could not be more different.

Jostle, for example, has an extensive chat capability but it is not separate from their core enterprise social network. This is true even in the mobile client. They see chat primarily as a communication feature of their core enterprise social network and relatively meaningless without the content sharing and social graph features of Jostle.

Jive, on the other hand, has just released Jive Chime, part of the Jive-w product line. It is a stand-alone, purpose built enterprise chat product and does not integrate with their enterprise social network products, Jive-x and Jive-n. Jive sees enterprise chat as a separate product category in much the same way was Slack, HipChat, Cotap, and Fleep.

Why a Company Might Adopt Enterprise Chat

Given the plethora of communications tools, such as email, enterprise social networks, text messaging, and instant messaging, it can be difficult to see why a company would add enterprise chat to the mix. However, enterprise chat offers a viable alternative to all of these digital communications tools. It is better at facilitating real conversation than email, is private to the company unlike text messaging, supports offline communication whereas instant messaging doesn’t, and works in real-time unlike enterprise social networks.

Another way to look at it is that enterprise chat is specifically designed for conversations. Other modes of digital communication need to be adapted to conversations which are the most common type of team communication. Instead of maltreating another form of communication, enterprise chat presents an opportunity to use the right tool for the job.

How Enterprise Chat Differs from Enterprise Social Networks and Instant Messaging.

At first glance, enterprise chat would seem to fill the same function as enterprise social networks and instant messaging. In truth, the differences are subtle. The basic concepts – real-time and offline conversations – are present in all three to some degree. There are philosophical differences that do effect design dramatically and make at least enterprise social networks and enterprise chat complimentary. Similarly, though there is overlap with instant messaging, the experience of enterprise chat is quite different.

Some key differences between the enterprise social networks and enterprise chat products are:

  • The intention of enterprise chat is communication amongst small groups not sharing content with large groups. The most basic philosophy behind an enterprise social network is wholesale sharing with large groups of people. You can share content and ideas with enterprise chat and can communicate with an enterprise social network but these are secondary functions for each. As such, communication is more robust for enterprise chat and sharing, especially content sharing, and is more fully developed in enterprise social networks.
  • Enterprise social network conversations are offline and not real-time. There are exceptions of course, such as Oracle Social Network’s real-time conversations, but most enterprise social networks primarily support off line discussions such as microblogging. Real-time conversations, on the other hand, are a primary function of enterprise chat products.
  • Enterprise social network conversations usually default to open whereas chat conversations default to private. It is true that most enterprise social networks allow an administrator to change this default behavior but the whole concept of the social network is based on open sharing. Enterprise chat assumes conversations are private unless the administrator, moderator, or end-users decide otherwise.

Just as there are differences between enterprise social networks and enterprise chat, there are also important distinctions between enterprise chat and instant messaging. For example:

  • Instant messaging is ephemeral and enterprise chat is persistent. Many instant message applications can save a log of a conversation in a file or in the case of Microsoft Lync/Skype for Business in a folder on the Exchange server. This is not the same as maintaining previous communications as active conversations that can be continued at any time.
  • Instant messaging is designed for real-time conversations but not offline communication. Enterprise chat supports both offline and real-time modes of communication.

Probably the biggest difference between both enterprise social networks and instant messaging and enterprise chat is the mobile influenced, consumer app-like design. Enterprise chat products, being new to the market, embraced mobile-first design from the start. This makes the mobile user experience especially intuitive and attractive.

There is a downside to the focus on making enterprise chat applications more like a consumer application – they all look very much alike. Keeping within the mobile-first, consumer app framework means little differentiation from the end-user perspective. This may act as a straightjacket in the future as enterprise chat vendors try and grow their customer bases while the products look so similar.

Table 1: Instant Messaging, Enterprise Social Network, and Enterprise Chat Comparison

Table 1: Instant Messaging, Enterprise Social Network, and Enterprise Chat Comparison

Common Core Features

One of the difficulties with describing the enterprise chat market is determining what an enterprise chat product actually is. Many vendors have unique features or approaches to providing chat type conversations. A good example of this is Mindlink. Originally marketed as enterprise social network, Mindlink is actually layered on top of Microsoft Lync/Skype for Business and offers a better user experience and additional features then the Microsoft product including extended platform support. This differs dramatically from the standalone cloud applications that dominate enterprise and consumer chat.

There is, though, an emerging basket of features that that define enterprise chat. These features are common to most products that are identified as enterprise chat.

Conversations between individuals and small groups.

Enterprise chat is a communications application that facilitates conversations between individuals and small groups. It allows seamless switching between one to one conversations similar to IM and group conversations of the sort found in chat rooms or in enterprise social networks.

Participants can also be added to existing conversations in progress. This allows one on one chat to turn into group chats, bringing people into the conversation when appropriate.

Simple Sharing

The purpose of enterprise chat is primarily to converse. Subsequently, content sharing is much simpler. Enterprise chat applications normally allow files, images, and other simple content to be added to conversations. Conversely, sharing business objects, which is becoming more common in enterprise social networks, is non-existent. Typically, content is attached as a file without interpretation with the exception of images which often are viewable in the chat stream. In some cases, a product will include a preview of a file in a well-known format. Cotap, for example, uses the Box View API to generate a preview of a PDF or Microsoft Office file.

Both real-time and offline communication at the same time

One of the defining qualities of enterprise chat is a conversation stream that is both real-time and offline. With enterprise chat, conversations update immediately providing a similar experience to instant messaging. At the same time, they are available offline to anyone who wants to participate in the conversation but is not online or available throughout the whole conversation. In this way, enterprise chat combines the communication modes of IM and enterprise social networks.

Persistent conversations.

Enterprise chat is persistent. Conversations are stored for some period of time. For most enterprise chat applications, conversations are stored for roughly 30 days for free versions, though it varies from vendor to vendor, and for an unlimited term for paid subscriptions. There is some variation though. Hipchat uses a storage limit of 25K messages in the free version instead of imposing a time limit.

Persistent conversations permit users to enter into conversations later and pick up conversation after some time has gone by. It also allows important conversations to be preserved for later review. This insures that the knowledge contained in these conversations is not lost.

There are, however, legal and risk management ramifications to persistent communications. As is the case with email and enterprise social networks, enterprise chat conversations may be subject to retention policies, legal holds, and other records management processes. In the case of enterprise chat applications that allow communication with people outside the organization, conversations may be subject to risk review as well. The ability of enterprise chat applications to support risk and legal data management policies is primitive at this time. Mindlink is an exception with a compliance module that integrates with major archive products such as Symantec Enterprise Vault. In theory, integration with compliance products could be achieved through APIs.

Searchable conversations

One of the reasons for persistent chats is so that they can be searched. The ability to search back in time to see what was said is a powerful feature of enterprise chat products. It allows the institutional knowledge encoded in conversations to be preserved and mined in the future.

Consumer-like Experience

Presentation of conversations is similar to text messages on a smartphone or consumer chat products. The conversation is laid out as a series of text bubbles that alternate by the speaker. Often speakers are identified by chat heads, little bubbles with a picture of the person or some other identifier. This makes it easy to follow conversations with multiple speakers.  Also like the consumer experience, images are often shown in-line and conversations augmented by emoji[3] and “like” buttons.

Organization of Conversations

Enterprise chat applications usually provide a way to organize conversations. Typically, you can either name the conversation or there is an automatic or default naming convention based on the people in the conversation.

Notifications and Presence

One of the most useful features of enterprise chat, especially compared to email, is the indication of presence. Enterprise chat participants can tell who is online and who is not. This helps set expectations regarding response times for conversations and lets you know if you are going to have a real-time or offline conversation.

Notifications are also a typical feature, aligning well with the mobile platforms that these products often operate on. Depending on the applications, notifications can be tailored to specific circumstances such as a new message, a request to join a conversation, or a change in presence.

Machine Conversations

APIs and integrations allow for conversations to include information from computers and devices to act as alerts and help drive decisions regarding information coming from devices. This is an important way to enable a variety of use cases. For example, IT administrators that wish to use an enterprise chat product to better manage a data center benefit from having server alerts start conversations. Similarly, a message from a CRM system about a change in a customer account can generate discussions about the best way to deal with the customer or sales opportunity.

The integration of machine messages also positions enterprise chat as a communication medium for the Internet of Things. As more industrial and consumer products become smart devices, it will become natural for end-users to want to communicate with or about them as they would people.

The Enterprise in Enterprise Chat

On the surface, enterprise chat products seem very much like their consumer counterparts. That’s because most vendors have tried to bring the best of the consumer app experience to the enterprise chat experience. That said, there are serious differences between consumer and enterprise products that make enterprise chat more suited for business environments.

On premises and hybrid deployment models.

There are many types of business that have special communications needs and restrictions that make it difficult to embrace the cloud model. Healthcare and financial services are two examples of industries where regulatory compliance can make cloud-based communications unwieldy to impossible. Enterprise chat vendors that focus on these markets often provide an on premises version of their product. Mindlink is, at present, an on premises product entirely while HipChat offers cloud, on premises, and hybrid options.

Administrator controls.

Enterprise chat allows administrators and managers to control who can chat and how. User management is common and many also include administrator control over notifications and deleting conversations. Jostle includes the ability to have moderated chats as well.

Integration with company directory or Microsoft Active Directory Services (ADS).

Many enterprise chat products can connect into existing directory services such as Microsoft ADS even when deployed as a cloud service. Cotap is an example of such as product. HipChat’s on premises server product does as well. Mindlink has that capability since Microsoft Lync/Skype for Business already has that ability.

Security

Enterprise chat uses the typical security measures one finds in most enterprise cloud applications. Connections are encrypted, data at rest is often encrypted, and most but not all require the use of a corporate email address to use the chat product. Some, such as Fleep, Cotap, Mindlink, and HipChat, can invite non-company personal into chats and restrict their access to specific conversations.

There is a common and serious security issue with almost all enterprise chat products. All but Mindlink and Jive Chime integrate with consumer cloud products including Google Drive and Google Hangouts. This opens the door to information leaking into an end-user application and out of the control of the company.

Cotap also has an unusual security feature that may create issues for some companies. They do not require permanent passwords. Instead, Cotap sends a security code to your email address that needs to be used to log in. These are, in fact, a form of disposable password. On average, this is a more secure method of logging in to an app. In order to make this less cumbersome for users, however, Cotap leaves a user logged in for 2 weeks at a time. On the one hand, you don’t have end-users leaving passwords lying about or using (or reusing) weak passwords. On the other hand, many companies’ security practices automatically logout end-users from computers and major applications. This security measure could also create problems when Cotap is accessed from a shared or remote computer and the end-user forgets to sign out, leaving their conversations exposed to the next person to use the computer.

Cross Platform Support

Support for many different platforms is clearly superior for the enterprise chat products compared to the consumer-grade ones. Enterprise chat products typically have web, Android, and iOS support with quite a few (Jive Chime, Mindlink, Cotap, and HipChat) providing desktop support for at least Windows and Mac OSX. HipChat, Mindlink, and Cotap not only support Microsoft Windows and Mac OSX but Linux as well.

Unique Product Features

Despite the common features and similar user experience, there is still room for product differentiation. A sampling of products in this space reveal some unique features that address usability and business use cases.

  • Leave a conversation. Jive Chime and Cotap both allow you to leave a conversation. When you do, you have no more interactions with that chat group. This is unlike the Mute feature found in IBM Verse. IBM Verse leaves you part of the email thread but silences notifications. Jive Chime and Cotap both silence notifications on a conversations as well. The “leave a conversation” feature goes one step further and removes a participant entirely from the conversation and the conversation from the end-users view. This has the advantage of letting others in the conversation know that someone has left.
  • Pinning Conversations. Fleep has a feature called pinning. An especially important conversation is attached to a pinboard, similar to a favorites list. This is a good way to keep ongoing conversations or chats with important information up front and accessible.

Cotap does something similar allowing end-users to pin groups and contacts but not actual conversations.

  • Broad enterprise integrations. Many enterprise chat products have APIs for integrating with other applications. Most of the stock integrations, however, are with SMB[4] or small team oriented products rather than applications that suit a large enterprise or even medium enterprise. Many enterprise chat products also integrate with developer tools such as JIRA, exposing their lineage as tools for programmers. Mindlink, on the other hand, integrates fully into the on-premises Microsoft ecosystem with versions that not only supports Microsoft Lync but Microsoft SharePoint and Email systems as well through a series of connectors. Lync, Outlook, and SharePoint are universally used in all types of businesses including very large companies. Siilarly, Cotap integrates with Salesforce.com Microsoft SharePoint, and several other enterprise file sharing and enterprise social network products.
  • Different deployment models. For the most part, enterprise chat products are SaaS[5] There are some exceptions such as Mindlink which is an on-premises product. HipChat, however, supports three deployment models – cloud/SaaS, on-premises, and hybrid. Atlassian even provides a migration tool that can move conversations from the cloud implementation to the on-premises server.
  • Moderated chat. Enterprise chat applications are by definition meant to be private conversations between a few people. Jostle’s chat capabilities, part of their enterprise social network product, add a third mode – moderated chat. Moderated chat allows for an open chat room but one controlled by a third party. The moderator can insure that conversations stay on topic and no one acts badly.
  • Data retention and compliance. While integration with archive and compliance products is often achievable through an application’s APIs, Mindlink provides a compliance module that connects Mindlink to a number of major archive products. In addition to creating an archive of persistent chat conversations, MindLink compliance also can archive Yammer conversations.

Compliance features, when they exist, are often a premium feature. For example. Cotap’s highest level of subscription, Enterprise, offers data management and activity monitoring.

Vendors

In preparing this report, Neuralytix interviewed a number of vendors to ascertain the state of the art in enterprise chat. All names and logos represented here are trademarks of their respective owners.

Table 2: Vendor Comparison

In addition, we reviewed the marketing claims and news of other products in the area especially, Slack.

Conclusion

Enterprise chat has the potential to do what enterprise social networks and instant messaging have never been able to do – reduce the amount of email that knowledge workers deal with daily. It combines the immediacy of instant messaging with the ability to communicate when you are ready to converse as is the case with email and enterprise social networks. The presentation of a discussion instead of a stream of emails with other previous emails embedded in it make it more readable and easier to follow than email does today. Enterprise chat embraces the duality of corporate communication. It is ephemeral and persistent, real-time and offline. It is a simpler way to communicate that has most of the advantages of email with few of the disadvantages.

More than just the functionality, enterprise chat provides a better user experience. It is familiar enough because of the consumer versions, mobile friendly, and a more natural way to interact electronically with others. Email was never intended to be conversational but enterprise chat is. It matches more closely the way people act when physically present.

The Interoperability Crisis

There is a looming problem with enterprise chat that will both curtail its ability to supplant email and could even cause it to fail to achieve significant market penetration. Email relies on standard mail transfer agents to move messages between systems. Furthermore, the MIME standard allows any compliant client to read and display a message created on a different email client. These standards allow interoperability between any email systems.

Conversely, enterprise chat applications are not based on standard protocols or content types. Subsequently, interoperability is non-existent. Some enterprise chat products allow an end-user to invite a person outside the company to participate in their conversations but on the original platform not the platform of the recipient. Others allow chats to happen outside the corporate domain through email but the email recipients experience is unimproved. Like enterprise social networks, enterprise chat creates another communication mode that must be used in addition to email, not instead of it, especially when communicating outside the company.

Eventually, if enterprise chat is to continue to grow, a set of standard message transfer protocols will need to be established to allow any chat system to communicate with any other including consumer systems.

[1] A unicorn is a privately funded company with a valuation of $1 billion or more. They are called unicorns because they are relatively rare. Slack’s valuation was ~$2.8B after its last round of fundraising.

[2] Both IM and Enterprise Chat have some file and image sharing capabilities but are not nearly as extensive as Enterprise Social Networks.

[3] Emoji, which means picture letter, are successors to the text-based emoticons. They are small icons that visually transmit a thought or emotion. They are typically found in consumer social applications and mobile apps.

[4] SMB means small to medium business. Typically this is a company with less than 500 employees. This is in contrast to large enterprises which may have 10,000 employees up to hundreds of thousands.

[5] SaaS stands for Software as a Service. A form of cloud computing, SaaS products deliver software via a web browser direct from the vendor.

 

 

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