Microsoft pushed Office 365 Connectors into general release. But there is still some way to go before it lives up to its potential as a fully interactive content provision and collaboration service.

The new Connectors enable teams who have been pulled together in an Office 365 Group to share third-party services using a single sign-in or account.

Office 365 Groups

Office 365 Connectors can surface all the information that a team may need from services like Twitter, LinkedIn or Trello, and makes it available through the shared Groups inbox.

Microsoft introduced Groups into Office 365 in September 2014 as a way to bring a group of users together around a shared Outlook inbox. In a white paper explaining the release, Microsoft noted that Groups:

“Brings together people, conversations and content across Office 365. By providing an integrated experience that link together email conversations, file storage, and calendar event management, Groups create an integrated experience for teams to focus on group activity.”

These connections are pulled together though a single Exchange Online mailbox, separate from individual users' mailboxes.

At the time, Microsoft talked a lot about new collaborative and team experiences and said that over time it would add capabilities for these teams to use.

Connectors is exactly that kind of capability. With it teams can connect and interact with third party apps and services and pull the content into Groups for use by the entire team.

As a result, Groups members can add Office 365 Connectors for their group’s use, in seconds, to bring filtered information in the shared inbox that is relevant and contextual to the team’s needs and interests.

As of today, there are more than 50 Connectors for services as diverse as MailChimp, Asana, GitHub, Zendesk, Salesforce, Twitter and UserVoice, with more on the way. All can be used on desktop, mobile and the web.

But Slack It Ain’t

Some are comparing the new Connectors and its capabilities to Slack. But not so fast.

There is a considerable difference between the two. Microsoft clearly had Groups and Connectors in mind when it was reportedly talking to Slack with a view to buying it. But with the deal unlikely now, Microsoft is pushing ahead with its plans for Groups.

In fact, T J Keitt, Forrester senior analyst for customer experience professionals, said that comparing Office 365 with Slack is like comparing apples with oranges.

“I wouldn't get wrapped up in trying to compare this to Slack or similar products. Office 365 and Slack operate in different markets and they target different sorts of buyers and teams,” he told CMSWire.

Groups, he said, is part of a wider Microsoft strategy to turn Office 365 into, among other things, a personalized portal for employees.

“This connectors announcement is the natural extension of this strategy. Microsoft realizes that not every piece of relevant information lives in Office 365, so you have to bring outside sources into the portal. What will be interesting to watch is how these external sources eventually become additional signals for the Office Graph, allowing for employees to dynamically receive alerts to vital information outside of a formal group,” he said.

A Long Way to Go

Gartner’s Larry Cannell Research Director in the Gartner for Technical Professionals Collaboration and Content Strategies service, also points out that in terms of functionality, the Connectors still have a long way to go before they can offer what Slack, or Jive offer.

“Office 365 Connectors are effectively application notifications that appear in a group conversation accessible via Outlook on the web (aka OWA) or Outlook 2016,” he said.

“Office 365 Connectors are simple notifications that have some formatting capabilities. They are not as rich of an integration as say a slash command or bot in Slack, or an OpenSocial notification in Jive or Connections. I would put them a half step above sending a formatted email.”

What may be significant, he added, is that Microsoft is enabling some form of application integration with Office 365 Groups. However, this integration, for now, is limited.