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Why did Google fail to invent Slack?

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Before the wildly popular chat and collaboration app Slack launched in 2013, there was Gchat. As Slate’s Lily Hay Newman said, “(It) archived chats, made them searchable, allowed for group chats, and facilitated media transfers.” Gchat, she maintained, was Slack.

A more bare-bones version of it, for sure, but Google had it back in 2005. They could certainly have launched a robust variety way before Slack came along eight years later. Google, however, did not develop Gchat.

Why? The innovation methodology of Google is simply not suited to business IT.

Its strategy of 10x thinking lends itself superbly to big and bold endeavors. So you have Google building a robot army, joining the space race, even attempting immortality.

It’s a mindset that’s great for solving big problems and for changing the world, but it is a way of thinking that is not compatible with the development of enterprise applications.

Business IT is not about the big and the bold. It is about the slow and the sure. Enterprise technology has to figure out ways to best serve the business; and the people in the business organization have to catch up.

Certainly, every 10 years or so, there will be a big breakthrough and 10x thinking kicks in. Examples are the invention of the cloud with Amazon Web Services, which is now critical for the success of enterprises; and the creation of machine learning, where Google played a central role. The rest of the time, business IT moves forward in  increments. And this is exactly how Slack was developed.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield and his colleagues at the failed startup Glitch built it as a chat tool. They had a small and very specific problem: How can their remote team communicate effectively? They used internet relay chat technology, tweaking and refining as they worked. Slack was built in bits and pieces over many years. The methodology was 10%, not Google’s 10x.

You could, of course, argue that Google came up with Gmail, a game-changing enterprise application. But Gmail was born from the 20% free time allocated their developers. The other products that make up Google Apps were merely acquired by Google. Google Docs originated from the product Writely  from Upstartle, bought by Google in March 2006. Google Sheets came from XL2Web by 2Web Technologies, bought in June 2005. Google Slides came from the company’s acquisition of Tonic Systems on April 2007. Google Sites was from Jotspot, bought in October 2006.

Gchat was not big enough an idea for the innovation junkie that is Google, and neither is a product like Slack. Despite all the added functions and its success, Slack is still essentially a small product answering a specific need.

Last May, Google launched two new messaging apps, Allo and Duo. The two are powered by machine learning. Allo, for example, offers Smart Replies that enable you to reply without typing. It adapts and gives more intelligent suggestions as you use it, aided by Google’s astounding search capacities. These new apps reflect the corporate strategy of thinking 10x. Allo and Duo fit in with the company’s vision of a future made bright by artificial intelligence. They are bricks in Google’s grand vision of organizing the world’s information and – ultimately – they are tools in controlling how we use that information.

Maybe it’s time for Google to buy Slack.

Disclosure: I have been working for 10 years in the Google Apps ecosystem, and my latest company Wizy.io is launching a team messaging solution for Google Apps customers.

Laurent-Casual-croppedFrom 2006 to 2012, Wizy.io CEO Laurent Gasser headed Revevol, a consultancy in Paris that he co-founded and built to become one of the most important Google Apps resellers in the world. He moved on to head the startup Collabspot, a Gmail extensions. In 2015, he founded Wizy.io from teams from the two companies. 

Laurent GasserWhy did Google fail to invent Slack?

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