How a Free Version of Teams Might Work

Posted on by Tony Redmond in Microsoft Teams, Office, and Office 365

Teams Splash

Teams Takes On Slack

Brad’s scoop about Microsoft preparing a free version of Teams to take on Slack got me thinking about the technical shape of such a product and how it might differ from the enterprise version available to Office 365 tenants.

As Brad explains in his article, Microsoft is aiming at the free version of Slack. I assume that the idea is to block the route companies take from using the limited free version to buying the full paid edition of Slack. Since the introduction of Teams in November 2016, Microsoft has competed head-to-head with Slack, but has lacked an introductory version. Anyone who wants Teams must have an Office 365 tenant and license every user.

Open to All

Microsoft’s announcement last week that they Teams now supports external access from any account is really important to their ability to deliver a free Teams client.

The free version won’t depend on Azure Active Directory as the authoritative directory or Office 365 Groups to manage team membership. Instead, I could see a scenario where someone with an MSA (Microsoft) account (connected to any email address) signs up to create a team and then nominates other members, each of which is identified by an email address. Teams sends invitations to those addresses and when the addresses are redeemed, connects the addresses to the team. Behind the scenes, the collection of members might be represented by a group in the MSA directory.

Limited Functionality for Free Teams

Microsoft is likely to limit functionality available to the free version of Teams. For instance, instead of supporting 100 channels in a team, the free version might support five. Instead of being able to create 250 teams, an MSA account might be limited to ten, and so on. I also think it likely that the array of bots, tabs, apps, and connectors available in the Office 365 version will be trimmed for a free version. However, Microsoft might keep apps that appeal to programmers, such as the integration between Visual Studio Team Services and Teams.

Consumer Versions of Apps Step Up

Teams draws upon many other Office 365 apps to deliver functionality to users. I could see that a free team might replace the enterprise apps with consumer versions. For instance, the free version of Teams could use an Outlook.com mailbox to host a calendar and a OneDrive site to share files between team members. Outlook.com uses the same physical infrastructure as Exchange Online, so hosting a mailbox on Outlook.com is a quick switch. Some more work is needed to replace SharePoint Online as the basis for file sharing and collaboration, but you could see how the consumer version of OneDrive could be used.

Conversations and Calls

Apart from that, the core Teams services that handle personal and channel conversations and the media (graphics) posted in conversations run on Azure and probably do not need a heap of work to handle the demands of a free version. Indeed, some of the complexity of the enterprise will be removed, as free versions will not be concerned about things like compliance and data governance.

As to meetings, the Office 365 version of Teams uses the consumer Skype infrastructure for its phone and calling functionality, so it’s not a long shot to say that a free version of Teams would do the same thing, dropping enterprise functionality like calling plans and PSTN dial-in. Those who create free Teams might have to sign up to a Skype consumer subscription to pay for calls, if those calls go outside the boundary of the team.

Switching Over

If they introduce a free version of Teams, Microsoft will have to be able to upgrade from freeware to paid-for. The steps involved might be:

  • Create a new Office 365 tenant.
  • Create new Azure AD accounts for the MSA accounts used by the free version of Teams.
  • Assign Office 365 licenses to the Azure AD accounts. Microsoft might have special low-priced plans to help ease the switchover.
  • Switch the free Teams to enterprise versions based on Office 365 Groups and SharePoint Online.

Conceptually, moving from free to paid does not seem to pose major technical difficulties. Microsoft has access to all the data, so this should be a straightforward operation. Of course, the devil is in the detail.

The Free Version of Teams Might Just Happen

The bottom line is that the architecture of Teams lends itself to morphing from the version we see in Office 365 to a free version that competes directly with the free version of Slack. Stranger things have happened, so don’t be surprised if it does.

Follow Tony on Twitter @12Knocksinna.

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