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Is Slack secure? And Symphony raises $100m

Chris KoehnckeChris Koehncke

One of the first rules for starting a business, is to figure out who you plan to take money from. Otherwise, you’re into market creation which is hard and usually involves lots of dollars to educate & create the market. Symphony Communications, who got a whopping $100m this week from Google plus an assorted list of venture capitalists, strictly follows the take money from others model.

Symphony’s initial goal is simply to destroy Bloomberg’s Terminal product and like a half chopped down tree, it’s not hard sweating to accomplish this. Bloomberg Terminal is (or was) used by nearly every financial trader in the world to ‘chat’ with their buddies. They’re not talking about the weather or sharing stupid giphy images. They’re talking about money, real money and real money right now.

In the financial world, price is not a concern. If you do exactly what they want and do it exactly how they need it. They will pay you whatever you want. To wit, Bloomberg Terminal costs $20,000 per user per year. Yup, that’s not a typo. $20,000 per user per year (4 zeros). Bloomberg Terminal does other stuff but mostly no one really cared, it was the world’s most expensive chat system sold to a community where is price is no object.

Life must have been good. But Bloomberg screwed up, seems Bloomberg’s news reporters could access the chat history and used that information to publish their own news reports based upon trading activity and chats. Oh dear! That bomb blew a big hole in Bloomberg’s credibility. Worse – the traders assumed the information was super secure, then they learned that Bloomberg routinely turned over chat history to various authorities. Finally, Bloomberg Terminal experienced periodic outages.

Can shooting fish in a barrel get any easier?

So Symphony enters with financial support from the very customers upset by Bloomberg and says we’ll run your chat service, do it cheaper, do it more securely and do it more reliably.  How does $10,000 a user sound? (note has not disclosed pricing). Symphony clearly is working from a solid business case though with a very fickle customer base.

Slack however may not be so secure. A quick view of their privacy and user data request policy basically says all of your chat history is there in the open for slack to use however they see fit with under a wide “to protect Slack and our users” which is pretty vague. But do you care? Perhaps not. However, Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon Web Services has a different feeling. At recent gathering, he commented that vendors should encrypt everything because the cost is low now and this prevents potential inquires down the road. Clearly he doesn’t want AWS to be in a position of having to make a decision on whether to disclose something or not.

Symphony has a quite detailed privacy policy, so they’re obviously serious about privacy. Not fully disclosed is how they will handle key encryption management but likely large paying customers will be given the option to manage the keys, allowing Symphony to operate with a free conscience that they have no idea what is being chatting about.

Symphony recently opened their platform for anyone to sign-up. I gave it a try. It’s clearly not as polished as Slack and the sign-up process was a bit clunky. Symphony’s web client interface is a bit sparse (think Slack minus half the features and at half the font size). I will admit I’ve grown fonder of Slack as a regular user.

But, I’ve also met several enterprise executives who have banned Slack inside their companies due to privacy concerns. Is this the tip of the iceberg?

Several have wondered aloud whether Google’s direct investment over Google Ventures over Google Alphabet means anything. Likely yes, but harder to say with more definition than that. Google clearly recognizes that encryption is becoming increasingly important and having a cat bird seat at Symphony likely doesn’t hurt. Google is also trying to be relevant in their offerings to Enterprises and here again Symphony provides them some much needed insight.

What’s the so what?

  • The relevance of encryption & privacy will likely be a major long term swing factor. We’re gonna encrypt more not less in the future.
  • Slack continues to grow, because it fun to play with, I’m a regular user, like it, but mostly for chat, the “stop using email” function has been elusive (at least to me and at this current point).
  • With the financial markets under their domain, Symphony clearly has an opportunity to move down market into verticals concerned about data protection (medical, legal, HR). This starts to become a long list if you think about it awhile. Symphony won’t likely blast away from the financial sector at least immediately.
  • The ‘net is Symphony already does encryption, Slack likely may get pushed into this and that will be harder to re-architect their platform if this become a “must” feature
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