- With Slack going public this week, Business Insider recently sat down with Jacob Bank, Gmail’s director of product management, to learn more about Google’s enterprise chat strategy.
- Bank said an important update will come later this summer when its team chat product, Hangouts Chat, moves into Gmail.
- "There’s the classic user that likes to keep email and chat separately," Bank said. "But according to our research, the vast majority are just frustrated by having to constantly keep tabs on two separate places."
- Google will also try and help users manage their chat and email in a unified way, as well as cut down on interruptions by prompting them to use certain channels at certain times.
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Slack has completely changed the way millions of people communicate at work. Long, formal emails are out; casual, rapid-fire chats are in.
But even as Slack’s messaging platform spreads to more offices and its now publicly-traded stock wins the hearts of investors, the time-tested email is unlikely to disappear. Think about an important note to a manager or a marketing outreach to a potential customer — email is still probably the best means to communicate in certain situations.
That’s giving hope to companies like Google and Microsoft, who are betting their email products can not only co-exist with chat, but that email can make chat better.
"There’s the classic user that likes to keep email and chat separately," Jacob Bank, Gmail’s director of product management, told Business Insider in a recent interview. "But according to our research, the vast majority are just frustrated by having to constantly keep tabs on two separate places."
At this year’s Cloud Next conference, Google announced it would be moving its Hangouts Chat for team collaboration (a messaging app similar to Slack) directly into its email service, Gmail. Emails would not be converted into chat messages (the two would be clearly distinctly marked as such), but Hangouts Chat would now live on a sidebar within Gmail itself.
Bank also said one of the biggest challenges for a company to adopt a new product — like a chat service— is getting everyone on board. If some people use it, but others don’t, communication can break down. But because people already use Gmail daily, Bank thinks adopting Hangouts Chat into daily workflows will be a more seamless experience for users.
"When teams are adopting a new chat product, for it to really work, everyone’s gotta go all in," Bank said. "The advantage of bringing team messaging to Gmail is that it’s a tool everyone already uses, so you don’t have this ‘one person left behind’ problem."
The Google product update that moves Hangouts Chat to Gmail has so far been rolled out only to a limited number of beta users, with plans for a formal launch to its more than 5 million enterprise customers later this summer.
But if Microsoft’s group chat product — known as Microsoft Teams — is any indication, the future may be bright for Google. As of this March, 500,000 companies were using Microsoft Teams with 150 of those customers having more than 10,000 users. Slack does not release the number of organizations using its product, but said in January that it had over 10 million paying users.
The possible future for Hangouts Chat
Beyond the convenience factor of having a chat service within Gmail, Google thinks it has some other advantages as well. For one, Bank said his team is working on a way for users to better manage the barrage of chats and emails they receive.
Over the years, Gmail has created multiple ways for recipients to make sure they’re not "dropping the ball" on incoming emails by offering features like labeling, read receipts, and automated nudges. Today, Bank says chat has "none or very little" of those features, but he wants that to change. Bank envisions a world where marking an email and a chat as "unread," for instance, will function in similar ways.
"Notifications can be handled in a unified way. Triage actions like, ‘I want to star this or mark this as unread or snooze this,’ can be handled in a unified way. Search can be handled in a unified way," Bank said. "The idea is that your inbox that we’ve built — all these tools to help you get back to things — can help you across channels."
With a research background in time management and also having started a company focused on the topic, Bank is especially interested in how communication tools can become less distracting.
In future iterations of Gmail and Hangouts Chat, Bank hopes to offer users insights into which channel — email or chat — should be used given the recipient and the time. If you’re trying to send a chat message to someone across the world, for example, and it’s late there, Bank thinks users should be prompted to send an email instead (since email is asynchronous and the expectation isn’t that you’ll respond right away, which is often the case with chat).
"This is a really important product principle for us. We want to give humans the information they need to make the right choice," Bank said. "Most of the interrupting people do is not out of malice. It’s just out of a lack of information, a lack of tooling, and a lack of contextual intelligence within the tools."
Bank said his team will also bring in information from a users’ Google Calendar to let people know if they’re busy or not.
Too big to fail?
When Google launched its Hangout Chat product in 2017 it had the luxury of rolling it out to an existing base of 3 million businesses. By the end of 2018, G Suite had over 5 million corporate customers.
And to further spread its chat service, Google announced at Cloud Next in March that it will release a feature known as "Guest Access," which allows users in one company to chat with those in another organization on Hangouts Chat. Guest Access also allows Hangouts Chat users to talk with people using their personal Gmail accounts. Currently, there are 1.5 billion Gmail users worldwide.
Google’s aggressive campaign to capture more of the chat market, and the advantages it has through integration with its existing products and customers, could present a threat to Slack’s fast-growing chat business. But Google’s chat ambitions are also playing out against a backdrop of political backlash towards tech giants and the potential of antitrust investigations to determine if companies like Google are too big and powerful.
So far, the antitrust conversation has revolved primarily around online advertising and e-commerce. But the battle for the emerging chat market could provide fresh ammunition to Google’s critics.
When asked if he was concerned about the timing of Google’s push into the enterprise chat market, Bank said: "We have a bunch of users in Gmail who are trying to communicate and collaborate with their teams and it would be crazy for us to try and not create a better experience for them. Our Gmail users tell us they want help getting their work done and we want to help them."
Google CEO Sundar Pichai, meanwhile, is even wishing Slack "continued success."
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