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Microsoft Office vice president Kirk Koenigsbauer kicks off the Microsoft Teams launch event in Redmond this morning. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

REDMOND, Wash. — After four months in preview, Microsoft is officially launching its Teams “chat-based workspace” for Office 365 in 181 markets around the world today, challenging Slack and tech giants including Facebook, Google and Amazon in the increasingly competitive market for enterprise messaging.

Microsoft is looking to leverage its global enterprise customer base and its widely used software applications for an edge in what’s becoming a key competitive battleground in the business technology market. Microsoft integrates apps and services including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, SharePoint and Power BI into Microsoft Teams, and it’s promising deeper Outlook integration in a few months.

Microsoft Teams, officially launching today, integrates with existing Office apps as a free add-on to Microsoft Office 365 for business users. (Microsoft Image)

The Redmond company has more than 85 million monthly active Office 365 commercial users. Microsoft says it has added more than 100 new features during the Teams preview, include the option for public teams, scheduled meetings, and mobile voice calling. Microsoft added features to appeal to enterprise customers, such as technologies to improve security, legal and regulatory compliance.

Not to be overlooked, the company has also been adding stickers, giphy support and other features to help Microsoft Teams appeal to younger corporate technology users.

“It’s part of an overall landscape that’s changing. Microsoft in Office has always been the kings of personal productivity, and it was always about, ‘Hey, what can you do to get more accomplished yourself?’ ” explained Brian MacDonald, Microsoft corporate vice president for Teams. “With cloud computing trends, the general attitude is more about ‘What can I achieve in a team context?’ and so the timing is right for that.”

Slack is the hot upstart in this area, reporting 6.8 million weekly active users as of January, including more than 1.5 million paid users. The company, which initially gained traction among smaller companies and teams, in January launched its own bid to attract bigger businesses, called Enterprise Grid.

(Note: Slack stats updated since original post)

Microsoft Teams Android App. (Microsoft Image)

But this is also a competition among the leading public cloud and online service providers. The launch comes less than a week after Google unveiled its new Hangouts Chat communication app for teams with threaded conversations and dedicated virtual rooms. Amazon is moving into enterprise communication with its recently announced Chime service that includes video-conferencing and chat features. Facebook also jumped deeper into the market last fall with the launch of its Workplace By Facebook tool.

The stakes are high. This competition “isn’t just a battle for the enterprise communication market share; it’s a battle for being the nervous system for all enterprise productivity experiences over the next dozen years,” writes Samir Diwan, CEO of Seattle startup Polly, which has developed an automated feedback tool that works on Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts Chat.

Microsoft says more than 50,000 organizations have adopted Teams during the preview, including big companies such as Alaska Airlines, ConocoPhillips, Deloitte, Expedia and others.

Slack’s success has demonstrated the importance of the market, and the ongoing potential for collaboration tools to gain grassroots momentum inside companies. Slack greeted the Microsoft’s Teams announcement last fall with an attention-grabbing ad in the tradition of Apple’s greeting to IBM on the launch of the IBM PC more than three decades ago.

Microsoft Teams is included at no extra charge in business editions of Office 365 subscription service. The official launch means that Teams will be turned on by default and available to users of business versions of Office 365 unless their IT administrator has chosen to turn it off. Previously, in preview, usage of Teams required approval by administrators.

This is far from Microsoft’s first foray into enterprise collaboration and messaging. In fact, one long-term question following the Microsoft Teams launch is what will happen to Skype for Business and Yammer, a work social network that Microsoft acquired for $1.2 billion in 2012.

Update: At the launch event in Redmond, Microsoft touted early users of Microsoft Teams including WeWork, the shared workspace and coworking company. “Their open and shared workspace model is the equivalent of our digital workspace,” said Kirk Koenigsbauer, the Microsoft Office vice president, adding that the companies “share a common vision.”

Koenigsbauer announced new partnerships for Microsoft Teams with SAP and Trello, adding to a group of more than 150 partners. “Microsoft Teams lets users integrate key apps and services, truly making it their hub for collaboration and teamwork,” he said.

He said the company will be making regular updates to Teams, with upcoming features including Office 365 external guest access capabilities. “You can expect our pace to be rapid and responsive to customers’ needs,” he said.

Mira Lane, UX architect for Microsoft Teams, showed integrations including Hipmunk, Mailchimp and giphy, as well as Microsoft services including Stream and Power BI. Meeting invites in Teams go through Microsoft Exchange as with other Office 365 apps. Users can make calls through Microsoft Teams and quickly set up group video chats.

The informal nature of chat can have a transformational effect on a team, she said. “It’s important to move beyond the functional and into the human element of a team.”

On the live Microsoft Teams webcast, Microsoft brought out leaders from Trek bicycles — with an impressively smooth set change behind the scenes at Microsoft Studios in Redmond. Trek has seen Microsoft Teams “skyrocket” in usage internally, they said.

Koenigsbauer concluded, “I’ve been at Microsoft a long time, I’ve been through a lot of product launches. But I feel like we’ve really got something here.”

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