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Slack unveils canvas, a sharing tool inspired by Quip

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In the fall of 2014, Slack was the most popular software startup. And in September, it went through a hot startup rite of passage: it made its first acquisition.

The company that bought it spaces, had only two employees. They had built a tool for sharing text, links, images, and other assets, which Slack saw as a useful extension of its core messaging platform. It was something like a word processor, but focused on collaboration rather than tuning Microsoft Word’s plethora of features in the kitchen.

“The pitch was like people don’t really use documents as documents in the classic word processor lineage,” said Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield. “They don’t need tab stops and page breaks and mail merge and stuff like that. They just want a digital container.”

Slack announced it would roll Spaces into its own service and then . . . failed to do so. The acquisition “was a technological disaster,” Butterfield said. Over the next few years, the company occasionally came back to the idea of ​​creating a flexible digital container for sharing items within Slack, and each time the project fell apart.

Then something happened that suddenly made the goal seem achievable: In December 2020, Slack agreed to sell itself to Salesforce for $28 billion. That brought it under the same ownership as Quip, an innovative, collaborative productivity tool–acquired by Salesforce in 2016–that was in the same conceptual zip code as Spaces had been.

It feels like the culmination of a lot of work that started in 2012.”

Salesforce Co-CEO/Quip Co-Founder Bret Taylor

Now Butterfield gets the flexible container he’s always wanted, based on Quip. Within Slack, it’s a new feature known as Slack canvas, which will be previewed this week at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. After the added functionality is put through a pilot program with select customers, Slack plans to make it generally available sometime in 2023.

(If the name “canvas” rings a bell, it may be because both Box and Monday.com have recently introduced whiteboard tools called Canvas. “Unfortunately, there aren’t that many names that ring true,” Butterfield says.)

Rather than just throwing Quip into Slack, canvas aims to “take those components that” [Quip] built and integrated in a way that is inherent to Slack,” said Chief Product Officer Tamar Yehoshua. “Not bolted on, but actually feels like it was created from scratch.” You can create canvases for any or all of your organization’s Slack channels, where they are located in the right pane for easy discovery; Yehoshua describes them as “a persistent layer of information”.

That persistence makes canvas fundamentally different from most of the features Slack has defined to date. The conversations in Slack channels and DM sessions, for example, scroll away almost as quickly as they occur. Slack’s conversations — audio (and now video) group calls for ad hoc collaboration — are even more inherently ephemeral.

No matter how seriously Slack has taken its search functions, it has never excelled at the kind of teamwork where something important is documented, kept coming back to it, and revised if necessary. Canvas gives it a chance to change that.

The arrival of canvas is also a significant moment for Quip. “It feels like the culmination of a lot of work that started in 2012,” said Bret Taylor, who co-founded the startup that year, sold it to Salesforce four years later, and was doing so well as a Salesforce employee that he’s now the co-founder. CEO of the company, who shares the job with Marc Benioff. (He’s also been in the news lately for his side job as Twitter chairman.)

Quip continues to exist in standalone form and was already integrated into other Salesforce products, but turning it into a Slack feature could reach a lot more people than it ever did on its own. Not that we know the size of the user base of the two apps: Salesforce refuses to provide such numbers, because it focuses more on engagement metrics, such as the 2.35 billion “actions” that happen in Slack every day.

Maybe it was fate

Long before Slack and Quip were corporate siblings, it was clear that their different approaches to workplace collaboration complemented each other. From 2016, that fact had led to: useful integrations between the two apps. Then, in 2020, Taylor says, “Stewart actually called me and said, ‘Would you be willing to divest Quip from Salesforce and sell it to us at Slack?’ I think he already had a sense of what adding real-time document collaboration to Slack could mean.”

In the beginning, Quip could be mistaken for an elegant but relatively simple word processor.

Instead of Slack buying Quip, Butterfield’s proposal started spinning the wheels that led to Salesforce buying Slack. Managing the Quip team then became one of his responsibilities, a first step in bringing the two apps together.

In its earliest days, Quip could be mistaken for an elegant yet relatively simple word processor – or at least that’s what I thought it was back then. I wrote about it for the first time. But his ambitions were always broader than that. And while Slack lets canvas teams work together to merge words, images, bulleted lists, and other elements into compelling layouts, that’s just the beginning.

Canvases can mix words and pictures together in an attractive way, although the idea here is much bigger than word processing. [Image: courtesy of Slack]

Butterfield points to his own real-world headaches as an example. “When the Slack team moved to Salesforce laptops, there was, I’m not exaggerating, a 108-step setup process for laptops,” he says. “There were screenshots and a description of all the things you need to do. It was like, ‘Go to this menu and then choose this option. And this checkbox should be checked. And if you don’t do this after that, you’ll have to go back and start over.’”

Using Slack’s workflow builder and integrations with other services, a canvas could not only document such processes, but also automate them. “Imagine a new kind of onboarding document for a new employee where they set up their banking information and insurance and request a new laptop and say if they have any special ergonomic needs for their seat,” Butterfield says. “That kind of thing like a document that has all the instructions, but also has interactive elements.”

A Slack canvas might not just tell you how to apply for a work phone, but walk you through the process itself. [Image: courtesy of Slack]

Yehoshua brings up similar potential uses: An organization could create a canvas that helps new employees request phones, watch training videos, and join a list of recommended Slack channels, then share it as part of the onboarding process. “The great thing is that a company can have a template for this and then use it for any new hire,” she says.

With an emphasis on internal communication and collaboration, Slack canvas is not a full-fledged replacement for Word and Google Docs, for example. But it seems that the feature can solve a basic problem when using conventional documents as an aid in vital work-related processes: it can be difficult to remember where you have the relevant files stored. If an organization puts information on canvas, Yehoshua says, “it’s easier to find. Everything will be searchable. And even if you use Google Docs, you can link to your Google Docs from your canvas.”

In addition to being embedded in Slack channels, canvases can be shared. [Image: courtesy of Slack]

The future of a 10 year old idea

As a broad concept, Slack canvas isn’t exactly without precedent. Butterfield cites Dropbox’s Paper, which has been exploring a similar area since 2015, as a source of inspiration. He adds that the canvas’s emphasis on allowing organizations to collect and share important information enhances the spirit of a wiki: “It’s almost like every channel has its own wiki homepage.”

Meanwhile, newfangled, collaborative editing environments like Notion and Coda are working on its capabilities to endow documents with app-like powers, making them at least vaguely close to what canvas does. As my colleague Jared Newman pointed out, even Microsoft and Google are struggling with this functionality.

Slack isn’t just jumping on a trendy bandwagon, though. The company continues the journey Quip began a decade ago, well ahead of the current boom in such products. By mixing channels, huddles and canvases together, it builds something distinct, with each feature helping to make the other more useful. There’s also room to expand the possibilities of canvas in the coming years: “It’s another surface that can continue to add value,” Yehoshua says.

Salesforce co-CEO/Quip co-founder Taylor says he’s excited to see where his 10-year-old brainchild goes in this new form. From now on, “if someone asks, ‘What’s Quip’s future?’ I have a very clear answer to that question,” he explains. “It will be part of Slack. And it’s great to see.”

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