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

Slack is becoming a document editor. The Salesforce-owned company announced today at its developer conference that it is building a new feature, called Canvas, that will let users create and edit full docs from within the Slack interface. It’s one of Slack’s biggest announcements in a while and maybe its biggest departure ever from its email-killer roots.

The idea behind bringing documents to Slack seems to have been to match everything about Slack that’s productive and useful but pull it out of a fast-moving chat window and into a more permanent and findable 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. Put a YouTube link, a tweet, or now a document, and it’ll embed the content automatically. Through Slack’s many integrations with other apps, you can also interact with third-party tools right from within a canvas. Each canvas is part document, part low-code website, with all the features inside Slack.

The most immediate purpose the feature will serve is as a big upgrade for Slack’s pins and bookmarks. Both were designed to make important messages and links easier to find but too easily turn into context-free places where you can’t find anything, and nobody bothers to look anyway. (I just checked one Verge Slack channel, and there are 51 pinned items. That’s not helping anybody.) Instead of pinning a bunch of messages with helpful links for new hires, Slack imagines you might just make a canvas with all the forms they need, information to know, and workflows to follow on their first day.

You can create one-off documents through Canvas, but each channel will also now automatically have its own associated page. Slack imagines you might use those as a hub for all the important details, links, and information users need for that channel. “That extends the way people are already using Slack today,” says Nate Botwick, a VP of product at Slack. Botwick previously worked at Quip, which Salesforce acquired in 2016 and which powers a lot of the technology underlying Canvas. “It takes their channels, which have already been built out and map to their organizational priorities, and adds a space to curate and organize information for that channel.”

At first, Botwick says, Slack Canvas is less a competitor to Google Docs and Notion and more a way to find your Google and Notion stuff more easily. In the long run, though, it sure sounds like Slack is trying to compete with Google Docs and Notion. “You could do things like work on a newsletter or an organizational announcement and send it out into one channel or many channels,” he says. For now, Canvas exists only inside the Slack ecosystem — there’s no public link to a Canvas doc or a way to share it over email — but that’s likely to change over time.

Canvas documents are collaborative, too, so multiple people can work inside one at the same time, and all the comments in a document are treated as a separate Slack thread. “When there’s new activity or comments or questions on a canvas,” Botwick says, “I think the probability that someone will see it sooner and respond to it sooner is much higher because it’s all coming in through Slack, and people are spending so much time there.”

Slack has spent the last few years trying to shift from a messaging app to a full productivity tool centered around messaging. But message windows aren’t the right interface for everything, and neither is text chat. That’s why Slack has invested in Huddles and Clips to bring video and audio into the process more easily 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. That’s a tough and expensive strategy, though, not to mention an increasingly common one, as Zoom and others also try to steal market share from the productivity giants.

Canvas is in testing now but isn’t coming to most Slack users until next year. Botwick says there’s still lots to finish and fine-tune 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 demand different interfaces, and Botwick says that “it will probably take us a bit longer to make it really great on mobile.” When you boil it down, though, he says it’s just a document editor. In Slack. Right next to the chat thread where it belongs.