Microsoft is today introducing a new community feature for Microsoft Teams, giving consumers the best parts of Teams to create and organize groups for free. The new community feature allows groups to use Teams’ calendar, meetings, and chat features.
Features like group chat, calling, and file/photo sharing are all supported, and groups can also use a shared calendar (which includes Google Calendar integration) to organize community events.
This new community integration is really aimed at groups like sports clubs or even virtual community groups for small businesses and simple groups like carpooling for employees to arrange transportation. Facebook, Reddit, Discord, WhatsApp, Twitter, and many other services already offer a variety of ways to organize groups online, so Microsoft is entering a crowded market, but it believes Teams has something different to offer.
“What we’ve learned in development so far is that there are a number of communities that want to get things done,” says Amit Fulay, Microsoft’s VP of Product, in an interview with The edge. “These are very different from pure fan communities or discussion communities, and I think our strengths as a company lie in… our ability to provide these productivity tools.”
Microsoft has created a set of templates for Teams users to quickly create communities, and those groups will be limited to the free consumer version of Teams at launch today. The Microsoft Teams apps for iOS and Android will support communities today, with desktop versions to follow in the coming weeks. You can also easily find shared images and files within groups without having to pin them.
Communities in Teams also present Microsoft with new moderation challenges. While the company has experience managing the Xbox network, Skype, and other consumer services that require moderation, it plans to largely follow the Discord model, which expects communities to implement their own rules, and that admins moderate their private groups.
“We actually have a centralized digital security team,” explains Fulay. “We have a lot of experience with Xbox and services like Flipgrid working on moderation stuff. The way things are tagged and moderated, we have central teams for that.”
Microsoft Teams communities require a Microsoft account, and groups can easily invite others to join with a link. If this link is accidentally shared or misused, admins can quickly change the invite link to manage who joins their community. Because the community feature is built on top of Teams, all virtual meetings have features like lobby to ensure only community members participate in calls.
The launch of Communities in Microsoft Teams comes nearly two years after Microsoft held talks to acquire Discord. Microsoft also failed to acquire TikTok and Pinterest and has shown a keen interest in online communities and creators. Microsoft was willing to spend heavily on these services because it doesn’t have a huge consumer-facing community outside of Xbox like its competitors Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple do.
Communities in Teams could help fill a big gap for Microsoft, but it’s still very early days and the feature set looks rather basic at the moment. Unlike Discord, you can’t just jump into an ongoing call with your online group, and the community feature in Teams seems more structured around a rigid form of organization.
“We’re just getting started,” says Manik Gupta, CVP for Teams Consumer at Microsoft, in an interview with The edge. “We’ll see where our users come in and how we move forward on our roadmap. We will look at how people are using the product and iterate based on that.”
Microsoft hired Gupta more than a year ago to lead a new consumer app effort within the company, and he’s now in charge of the Teams client. That should mean we’re seeing some user experience improvements for Microsoft’s communication tool. Microsoft Teams users often complain about performance issues or the confusing aspects of Windows 11’s built-in Teams consumer version and then have to launch a separate app to access the work/school version.
“One of the things I hope to bring with me [to Teams] is the same level of simplicity and end-user-centric approach to building the entire product,” says Gupta. Microsoft has made incremental improvements to Teams performance over the past year, including some latency and framework improvements, but the promised “Microsoft Teams 2.0” app is still not fully released. This will move Teams from Electron to WebView2 and greatly improve performance for desktop users.