How Slack is helping reimagine what a document is

September 15, 2015, 12:47 AM UTC
Courtesy of Slack

Sam Schillace says he has seen the future of documents — and it’s Slack.

Schillace knows a lot about digital documents. He’s currently senior vice president of engineering at cloud storage and collaboration company Box (BOX), and before that was at Google, where he headed up engineering and development for both Gmail and Docs. Schillace joined Google (GOOG) after it acquired his online collaboration startup Writely in 2006.

During an interview with Fortune at Facebook’s (FB) engineering-focused @Scale conference on Monday, Schillace explained how Slack, the popular social media tool for businesses (built by a startup of the same name), is helping users reimagine what a “document” actually is. In his view, messages on Slack are part of an ongoing evolution in the nature of documents away from very formal (originally physical) entities and into something much more ephemeral.

“Every time there’s a platform shift, our concept of what a document is takes another step along that spectrum,” he said, referring to the decline in formality as we moved from word-processing applications to email to Evernote. “I think Slack is actually the next step in that evolution, where it’s a document that we barely recognize as being a document. It’s almost a pure communication tool with some content woven through it.”

Sam Schillace (R), along with Box CEO Aaron Levie (L) and Head of Mobile Martin Destagnol (C).
Photo Courtesy Box

Some might argue the point that Slack—or at least its flavor of rapid-fire messaging and information sharing—has garnered enough users to qualify as a platform unto itself. But Schillace sees the company and the type of communication it facilitates as continuing to grow. Primarily, this is because users like the application so much. Even teams at use Box use Slack, he noted, although it’s not officially sanctioned by the company’s IT department.

“In the earlier wave of enterprise software, the error was always on the side of, ‘Well, let’s just do what the enterprise needs and the users will have to accept it,’ because that’s how the world worked,” Schillace said. “In the era of these cloud services, where there’s a lot of end-user choice, you don’t have that luxury anymore. You have to navigate that conversation a lot differently and you have to pay attention to how well the user accepts the tool, and you have to actually be effective as well as being safe.”

He thinks Slack will be able to thread that sometimes tight needle just as Box, which went public in January (10 years after it was founded), has largely been able to do.

Assuming it can, the next challenge for Slack might well be figuring out how it expands from the messaging-focused app it is today into something more holistic. After all, the business of storing corporate contact and facilitating employee collaboration is only going to get more cutthroat as companies seek to own a bigger piece of the pie. Why own only messaging when you can also own document storage, calendars and maybe even email.

Even Box has is preparing for a future where it will have to expand its business in order to survive. “You can see a world coming where if you’re going to be a content platform, you have to be a content platform for all of the content,” Schillace said. “… We’re not quite at that stage of growth quite yet, but you can see glimpses of it coming.”

For more about Slack, watch this Fortune video:

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