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The command box in Microsoft Teams. (Microsoft Photo)

Microsoft is out with a series of new features for its chat and productivity program Teams, all with a common goal of making it easier to get more done without leaving the app.

Microsoft called the update, which starts rolling out today, the biggest one since Teams launched last March. The new features make it possible to import content from third-party apps into a conversation, the same way users might drop a picture or a GIF into a Facebook chat. A beefed-up search bar at the top of the dashboard lets users call up specific information from third-party apps, such as news and weather websites; or perform specific tasks, such as calling a co-worker.

During an interview with GeekWire, Larry Waldman, principal program manager for Microsoft Teams, gave an example of the kinds of problems Teams is trying to solve with these new features: picking a restaurant for a lunch with co-workers.

“I’d be chatting with them and then I would leave the product. I would go find a particular restaurant; then I would copy it,” Waldman said. “Then I would come back to the product and paste it in. Then the person would get the link, click on it, go out of the product to view it, and then they’d come back to the product and respond. We thought there was a better way to do that.”

Microsoft’s goal with Teams is to become the digital equivalent of the open office space by combining pretty much everything there is to do at work — chatting, having meetings, collaborating on documents, sending cute animal GIFs — all in one place. Teams represents Microsoft’s entry into the enterprise collaboration market, which includes some of the world’s most powerful tech giants, such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, as well as upstart Slack.

Microsoft Teams Program Manager Larry Waldman. (Microsoft Photo)

Some of the capabilities of the new and improved search bar might look familiar to users of other productivity apps. Slash commands — typing in a “/” and then a basic command such as “away” to set an away message — can be found on Slack and other apps. Also in the search bar, typing “@” can launch queries for content like news articles and photos. Users can grab information from other productivity tools like Trello and Wrike and drop them into a Teams conversation.

GeekWire got a demonstration of Teams when it launched, and learned about how it borrows familiar elements from other popular apps and services to reduce the product’s learning curve.

Microsoft wouldn’t say how many people or organizations are using Teams today. Last September, Microsoft said 125,000 organizations used Teams, up from 50,000 at its launch in March 2017.

Microsoft Teams is included at no extra charge in business editions of the Office 365 subscription service and is available in 181 markets around the world. As part of the larger Office package — which boasts more than 100 million monthly active users — the growth potential is there for Teams. The company doesn’t expect the tool to take over the competitive enterprise collaboration market immediately, but Microsoft sees Teams as part of its strategy to set Office apart as the go-to program for enterprises.

survey of IT pros last year, conducted by Austin-based IT network Spiceworks, found that the use of Teams is expected to take off in coming years, while adoption of competing tools Google Hangouts and Slack are only expected to rise slightly in that same period. Should those trends bear out, the study predicts that Teams will be the second most popular chat app in the workplace by the end of 2018, trailing only another Microsoft program, Skype for Business.

That prediction got upended somewhat last year, when the company said Teams will eventually replace Skype for Business as Microsoft’s primary tool for all calls, video conferences and meetings for customers using Office 365 in the cloud. Microsoft didn’t give a timeline for this move.

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