17 December, 2015

Slack 2.0

Slack just capped a pretty flawless year by announcing a new platform, an iteration on existing APIs for building bots and integrations. Now, there’s a curated app directory, improved and simplified documentation, a new open source framework, and an $80 million fund aimed at developers to build even more apps. All this in a brisk and breezy half hour that was exactly what you’d expect from this smart and quirky enterprise software company1.

This is a great, necessary step because, despite the thousands of existing integrations (the vast majority of them custom to a single organization) and millions of installations, building Slack apps was more difficult than it should be. Finding these integrations was often just as challenging, and a searchable, curated place that vets new apps will be a huge win for everyone who loves Slack.

It’s an impressive start, especially considering they only hired a director of platform five months ago. It also suggests something deeper about what Slack actually is — the real product isn’t just an evolved enterprise messaging app but the platform itself. To put it another way, the Slack we know today — the IRC client you want to live in with bots that help you get your work done — is just one of the apps that could be built on the Slack of the near future. It’s clear that messaging and collaboration will always be core to what Slack is — their previous acquisitions demonstrate as much — but you can easily imagine the platform continuing to expand to allow apps that don’t just tie into the messaging interface. Once Slack adds a proper store that gives developers build apps and add-ons they can charge for and access to hundreds of thousands of paying customers, the platform will truly take over as the product.

To talk of platforms and app stores brings to mind Apple’s App Store but I’m not sure that’s the right approach. As great as the App Store is for Apple, it’s proved to be much more difficult to build a real business on. Microsoft, on the other hand, dominated the computer industry for two decades on the strength of the relatively open Windows APIs (and, to be sure, a take-no-prisoners ruthlessness). Slack, of course, doesn’t have the advantage of Microsoft’s operating system monopoly but they still have an incredible opportunity to build the foundational layer of a new enterprise computing stack that looks like the future — mobile, cloud-connected, with a smart, conversational UI.

When April Underwood, Slack’s Director of Platform, introduced all of this she made an allusion to the command line and even talked wistfully about using Pine for email. This is certainly a kind of Proustian proto-nerd nod to the developers that will be essential to making the platform work but demonstrated Slack’s ambition as well. The command line is incredibly powerful, even in the era of multitouch voice activated virtual reality, and continues to be foundational to all software. If Slack can pull off redefining the command line in for the enterprise, they will have built a pretty incredible business.

  1. Seriously, how great is this