Slack embraces email with its Astro acquisition

The collaboration software firm sees its future success in communications channels, but its latest purchase shows email isn’t dead yet.

Slack might be pinning its hopes on channels becoming the most common method of business communication, but its latest acquisition shows the continued importance of email for getting work done.

Last week, Slack touted its acquisition of Astro as a move designed to help it build out its own email management capabilities. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. The purchase came just ahead of the company’s Frontiers user conference in New York City, which begins today.

Launched in 2015, Astro's email client uses machine learning to simplify inbox management and calendaring. Its popular Slack app – Astrobot – launched last year, letting users reply to emails without leaving Slack.

We’ve taken some steps to make it possible to integrate email into Slack, but now we’re in a position to make that interoperability much simpler and much, much more powerful,” Slack said in a blog post.

Astro has disabled signups for new users and its apps will be shut down on Oct. 10.  Slack has not specified exactly how Astro's technology will be used, though improved email capabilities make a lot of sense for the company. 

The technology purchased by Slack in other, earlier such acquisitions has tended to be discontinued and incorporated into its growing platform. Case in point: the screen-sharing capabilities Slack added after its 2015 Screen Hero buy.

“If one of the main objectives of Slack is to transform channel-based collaboration into the default way of working, playing nicely with with popular email service would be key,” said Alaa Saayed, a research analyst at Frost&Sullivan.

“Bringing Astro's tools into Slack will allow for tighter email integration...,” Saayed said.

While Slack predicts that channels will replace email as the primary business communication tool by 2025, billions of emails are still sent each day. The company expects that the ability to reply to emails without switching between apps will make life easier for users.

“Email remains deeply entrenched in the enterprise, and that's where [Slack] needs to make inroads to make the kind of revenues needed to keep their investors happy,” said Jon Arnold, principal analyst at J Arnold & Associates.

“So, their odds of success for Enterprise Grid seem much better if they go with the flow on this one and keep email in the mix,” Arnold said.

Enterprise Grid, launched in 2017, is key to Slack’s ongoing effort to gain corporate customers. Among other things, it offers centralized management of the team chat application on a company-wide basis and supports up to 500,000 users.

Slack is not the only collaboration vendor tackling email integration. The move is similar to Facebook's July purchase of email collaboration startup Redkix, which it plans to tie into a consolidated messaging feed for its Workplace enterprise social network.

“Email remains a core productivity app in the workplace and has been a missing piece in Slack's strategy since its early days,” said Raul Castanon-Martinez, a senior analyst at 451 Research. “It is also a central component in Google’s and Microsoft's productivity suites.”

Though Slack was initially positioned to address the shortcomings in email, “with its acquisition of Astro it is now taking steps to incorporate – rather than replace – email into its business communications formula,” he said.

Astro is one of three acquisitions so far by Slack this year, its busiest period since launching in 2013. Earlier this year, it acquired Missions and in July it bought the intellectual property for rival Atlassian's HipChat and Stride message-centric collaboration tools.

Castanon-Martinez said that the moves should help Slack accelerate its product roadmap, strengthening its position against its rivals. “Slack also benefits by expanding its team of experts in a market where talent is hard to come by,” he said.

Astro co-founders Andy Pflaum, Roland Schemers and Ross Dargahi also founded open-source collaboration software vendor Zimbra, while other staff previously worked at Accompli (a mobile email tool acquired by Microsoft in 2014, forming the basis of its Outlook app).

The acquisition follows a $427 million investment round, bringing Slack’s current valuation to $7.1 billion. The additional investment will provide “even more resources and flexibility to better serve our customers, evolve our business, and take advantage of the massive opportunity in front of us,” the company said.

Slack has eight million daily active users, including 70,000 paid teams. More than a year after its launch, its Enterprise Grid product had been deployed by 150 businesses worldwide., with IBM, Capital One, Target and Conde Nast among its biggest clients.

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