Instant messaging has touched every aspect of people’s lives, including communication in the workplace. Email still serves well as a passive form of communication, but it doesn’t work well enough in the fast paced teams we see today in modern businesses. While messaging apps like Slack are a perfect fit for teams looking to stay on the same page in real-time, communities have some different priorities. In this article, we examine various team messaging apps based on the most important features communities need.
This factor depends upon the size of the community. All hosted team messaging apps have a recurring fee per user. The small and closed ones can probably afford to pay a monthly subscription fee but the large and open ones have to contend with the free tier. The most popular option, Slack, comes with a free tier that works well for medium sized communities. Slack is known to have an undocumented hard limit on the number of users though, as discovered by the Free Code Camp community. Other options like Hipchat and Gitter claim to not have this limitation. In case of self-hosted messaging apps like Mattermost, it depends on how much server cost you can afford. Another important limitation of Slack is that it has a 10k message limit for search history – messages older than that are not searchable. This becomes a major deal-breaker for many communities. There are some solutions around this like Slack Archive but they are not easy to use or require some payment. Other major platforms do not have such a limit in their free tier.
This is an important part of any messaging platform. Being able to add bots and integrations to the platform adds another dimension of usability. The most popular integrations like Github and Bitbucket are available for all messaging applications. Slack leads this space with their extensive selection of Apps. Slack apps can offer interactivity using GUI as well, something which other platforms lack. Hipchat comes in at second with their integrations. In both of these platforms, users can add bots that post statuses from various services like Trello, or add new IRC style commands to perform actions. Communities may want some custom functionality for services that do not offer these integrations, like setting up notifications for payments at outlets. This can be done by combining the webhook APIs with a service that provides APIs for payments. While Slack has a limit of 10 integrations for the free tier, Hipchat has no such limit.
Large communities often require tools that can automate some tasks, like sending an invite for new users to join. There are many such tools built around the Slack API that offer this functionality. Hipchat offers a similar functionality by allowing the admin to make an auto-invite URL. Discord offers this functionality in the form of Instant Invites, and their expiration time can also be controlled. Bots that provide on-boarding for new users are also very important. Slack has some third party apps for that and communities on other platforms can also build one using a multipurpose bot like Hubot.
While all team messaging platforms can be customized using extensions, some inherent capabilities make them more suitable to certain target groups. For example, Gitter is best suited for communities that are built around projects on Github. The tight integration and automatic room creation per project in an organization makes it ideal for such communities. Discord is geared more towards the gaming community with features like audio chat, custom hot keys, and in-game overlays – something that no other platform provides, and is very critical for the gaming community. Communities that only require chat capabilities can make use of the more general purpose applications.
Some communities might have a requirement to keep the data they generate in their control. More privacy focused groups should look at platforms like Rocket Chat and Zulip. Both of these platforms are completely open source and are supported by many contributors. They offer most of the functionalities that other platforms provide. Communities can host their application on their own servers and control who has access to their data. Another added benefit is that any additional functionality can be added to the platform by forking it, something that is not possible with closed source alternatives.
All of the major team messaging applications are available for a variety of operating systems like Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android. While the mobile apps are native for all platforms, desktop versions are usually made using the electron framework.
Choosing the right application for a new community is a very important decision, since none of the platforms provide any migration functionality between them. The best way to make this decision is to do a trial run on the major ones and settle for the one that makes the most sense for the community.
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