Slack’s new Canvas feature puts a document editor in your chat window

A canvas is a document that lives in – and works with – Slack. | Image: Slack

Slack becomes a document editor. The Salesforce-owned company announced today at its developer conference that it is building a new feature called Canvas that will allow users to create and edit entire documents from within the Slack interface. It’s one of Slack’s biggest announcements in a while and arguably the biggest departure ever from the email killer roots.

The idea behind bringing documents to Slack seems to have been to match everything about Slack that is productive and useful, but take it out of a fast-moving chat window into a more permanent and discoverable space. Canvas documents (which Slack calls canvases) can obviously contain text and images, but one big advantage they have is Slack’s ability to grab important content from any link pasted into the app. Post a YouTube link, a tweet or now a document and it will embed the content automatically. Thanks to Slack’s many integrations with other apps, you can also interact with third-party tools directly from a canvas. Each canvas is part document, part low-code website, with all the features within Slack.

Several people are typing in a Slack canvas.
Image: Slack
Canvas docs work together and all their comments are just Slack threads.

The feature’s most immediate purpose is as a major upgrade to Slack’s pins and bookmarks. Both are designed to make important posts and links easier to find, but too easy to turn into context-free places where you can’t find anything, and no one bothers to look anyway. (I just checked one) roadside Slack channel and there are 51 pinned items. That doesn’t help anyone.) Instead of pinning a bunch of posts with helpful links for new hires, Slack imagines you could just create a canvas with all the forms they need, information they need to know, and workflows they need to follow. to follow their first day.

You can create one-time documents via Canvas, but each channel now automatically has its own page. Slack imagines you could use that as a hub for all the important details, links, and information users need for that channel. “That expands the way people already use Slack,” said Nate Botwick, a VP of Product at Slack. Botwick previously worked at Quip, which Salesforce acquired in 2016 and which powers much of the technology underlying Canvas. “It takes their channels, which are already built out and mapped to their organizational priorities, and adds a space to manage and organize information for that channel.”

Initially, Botwick says, Slack Canvas is less of a competitor to Google Docs and Notion and more of a way to find your Google and Notion stuff more easily. In the long run, though, it looks like Slack is trying to compete with Google Docs and Notion. “You could do things like work on a newsletter or an organization announcement and send it to one channel or multiple channels,” he says. For now, Canvas only exists within the Slack ecosystem — there’s no public link to a Canvas document or a way to share it via email — but that’s likely to change over time.

A GIF with a Slack canvas in a channel.
Image: Slack
Every Slack channel now gets a canvas, which is much more useful than a bunch of bookmarks and pins.

Canvas documents also work together, so multiple people can work in one document at the same time, and all comments in a document are treated as a separate Slack thread. “If there’s new activity or comments or questions on a canvas,” Botwick says, “I think the chances of someone seeing it and responding to it sooner are much higher because it’s all coming in through Slack and people are spending so much time there. ”

Slack has spent the past few years trying to switch from a messaging app to a full-featured productivity tool focused on messaging. But message boxes aren’t the right interface for everything, and neither is text chat. That’s why Slack has invested in Huddles and Clips to make it easier to bring video and audio into the process, and why it’s turning to Canvas to do the same with documents. Slack used to compete with Microsoft Teams; it’s starting to compete with Office as a whole. However, that’s a difficult and expensive strategy, not to mention an increasingly common strategy as Zoom and others are also trying to steal market share from the productivity giants.

Canvas is now being tested, but won’t be coming to most Slack users until next year. Botwick says there’s still a lot to finish and refine between now and then. He’s thinking about how it all works on mobile, in particular — Canvas will be in Slack’s mobile apps at launch, but smaller screens require different interfaces, and Botwick says “it’ll probably take a little longer to get really great.” to make on mobile.” However, if you sum it up, it says it’s just a document editor, in Slack, right next to the chat thread where it belongs.

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