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Microsoft Teams: 7 things you need to know

The new Office 365 component for collaborative communication is Microsoft's long-promised answer to Slack.

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introduced the new Teams software at a New York press conference.

John Falcone/CNET

Microsoft unveiled its long-rumored collaboration tool Wednesday at an event in New York. Dubbed Microsoft Teams, it's a forthcoming Office 365 component that adds a group chat tool to the company's megaprofitable office suite.

Teams is squarely aimed as a competitor to Slack, the upstart web-based software that has challenged email's dominance in the many small groups and large corporations that have adopted it over the past few years.

After the unveiling of Teams at the event, anchored by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, I received a guided tour of the software. Here's what we know so far.

It's a lot like Slack

When viewing demos or screenshots of Microsoft Teams, you could be forgiven for confusing it with a new version of Slack. The user interfaces look extremely similar, and it uses the same general "channels" and individual/small group chat design language.

At first glance, Microsoft is hardly reinventing the wheel here. Instead, it's utilizing a lot of its existing strengths in Office (online applications), Azure (cloud-based file management), Skype (online communication), Exchange servers (data management) and security, all of which are pulled together in a new group chat application.

Teams also incorporates plenty of other familiar Slack features, including in-line animated GIFs and assistant bots, including one ("WhoBot") that's designed to find individuals in your organization based on their specialties or assignments.

It supports threaded conversation

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"Showcase artists" thread within the "Art and Media Festival" channel

John Falcone/CNET

A common complaint among Slack users is the app's dearth of email-style threaded conversations. In other words, any discussion within a channel is completely jumbled with another. (Slack has said it's been testing threaded conversations since at least April, but the feature has yet to appear.) By contrast, Teams will support threaded conversations on day one.

It's a free add-on for Office 365 enterprise subscribers

Teams isn't exactly free, but if your organization is already an Office 365 subscriber it won't cost anything additional. Of course, that doesn't mean it'll just pop up on your desktop the day it launches. Like any Office component, it'll be up to your company's IT department whether or not to deploy it to users in the organization.

... but it's not available to non-business Office subscribers

Did you purchase a "one and done" Microsoft Office software download? Are you an individual or family subscriber to Office 365? Sorry, no Teams for you. The new software is strictly aimed at the enterprise/business market.

That's a big departure from Slack, which is essentially a freemium web-based tool that's available to any ad hoc group who chooses to sign up for it. (Customers can then convert to a paid Slack subscription, which offers more features and options.) So if you're a family or other small group, don't expect to use or try Microsoft Teams.

Teams works on all major platforms

Microsoft has, or will have, apps for Windows 10, Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone and even browser-based web clients. Assuming the web client is robust and works on Chromebooks, that should cover all but a few outliers.

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The Teams app running on an iPhone

John Falcone/CNET

Teams supports third-party plug-ins

ZenDesk (customer service software) and Asana (a popular project management tool) have already said they'll be working to integrate their services with Teams.

Teams will be officially available Q1 2017 -- but you can try it now

Microsoft is targeting the official launch of Teams by the end of March 2017. But a preview of Teams is available now -- again, though, only to enterprise customers. At the bottom of this Microsoft page, the company notes that "IT admins can turn on Microsoft Teams as part of your Office 365 plan," and offers an instructional video.

On the same page, Microsoft also highlights a free Office 365 Business Premium trial offer, which would allow participants to use the Teams beta as well.

Microsoft Teams' tricks should make Slack nervous (CNET Update report)