With smart canvas, Google looks to better connect Workspace apps

With smart canvas, Google looks to better connect Workspace apps

Google has unveiled a range of new ways to connect its productivity and collaboration apps, including the rollout of its smart canvas. But is it enough to keep up with innovative start-ups?

Credit: Google

Google is adding a range of “smart canvas” features to its Workspace productivity software suite, offering news ways to connect and share contextual information between apps such as Docs and Sheets.

Rather than introducing entirely new products, the Workspace smart canvas features are pitched as a “new product experience” that updates existing apps with improved collaboration functions.

"With smart canvas, we're bringing the content and connections that transform collaboration into a richer, better experience in Google Workspace,” Erika Trautman, director for Google Workspace, said ahead of the Google I/O conference this week. “We're enhancing the apps that hundreds of millions of people already use every day like Docs, Sheets, and Slides, to make them more flexible, interactive and intelligent.”

Among the new features, said Google, are interactive “building blocks” that automatically update information between applications and save users from regularly switching screens.

This includes the “smart chips” feature, available now within Google Docs. Just as it’s already possible to “@mention” a coworker in a document, smart chips let users insert additional information, such as a wider list of recommended people within their organization, as well as files and meeting information.

This means, for instance, using the Google Workspace People API to pull contact data from a contacts list or corporate directory into Docs, providing detailed information such as where a person is located, their title, and how to contact them to start a conversation.

The smart chips also connect to Google Drive and Calendar for files and meetings, respectively. And while the focus of the smart canvas capabilities is currently around Workspace apps, Google said that it plans to open the APIs for third-party platforms to integrate, too.

“Google didn’t reinvent Docs, Sheets and Slides: They made it easier to meet while using them — and to integrate other elements into the Smart Canvas,” said Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC. “Google seemingly focused on creating a single pane of glass to make engaging over work easier - without reinventing the proverbial wheel.”

The moves announced this week are part of Google’s drive to integrate its various apps more tightly; the company rebranded G Suite to Workspace last year.

“The idea of documents, spreadsheets and presentations as separate applications increasingly feels like an archaic concept that makes much less sense in today’s cloud-based environment, and this complexity gets in the way of getting things done,” said Angela Ashenden, a principal analyst at CCS Insight.

“The initial smart chip features are just scratching the surface of where this strategy is likely to go, with Google also bringing its comms and productivity tools together in more valuable and seamless ways.”

Other smart canvas features newly available in Docs are a “table templates” function that allows for simple polling within Docs to gather feedback from team members, and “checklists,” which enables the creation of action items in Docs that can be assigned to colleagues. Adding these action items simultaneously updates checklists within Google Tasks, helping teams keep track of shared projects, the company said.

Other updates to Docs include a “page-less format” that removes the boundaries of a page, making it easier to access large images and detail comments when working on devices of different sizes, as well as an “assisted writing” AI feature that warns users about using offensive language and words when drafting text. The assisted writing will be available later this year.

Sheets gets new smart canvas features, too, with the introduction of “views” to simplify interactions within a spreadsheet, including a timeline view to track tasks. There’s also an “assisted analysis” function with formula suggestions to provide more accessible insights from data.

“The whole idea is that these are tools people already know,” said Trautman. “We don't want anyone to have to spend too many brain cells thinking about how to adopt this new functionality; we want it to just be really easy and intuitive to bring the power of smart canvas into their day-to-day work.”

Related to its smart canvas focus, Google has also made progress on plans integrate its Meet video meeting tool more deeply into the suite; users will be able to insert video feeds directly into the productivity apps to improve collaboration around specific documents. That feature will be available in the fall, Google said.

A Google spokesperson said that most of the smart canvas features will be available to all Workspace customers, though did not provide details on which would be restricted.

While Google was a leader in collaboration with the launch of its cloud-based productivity suite in 2006, a range of rival companies have moved into the market, including Microsoft’s Office suite and Salesforce’s Quip; startups including Airtable, Coda, and Notion have introduced their own innovative approaches (while attracting significant investor attention).

For Google — which had six million paying customers as of April 2020 — the challenge is staying ahead of the curve without moving too quickly and alienating existing users.

“Being first to market is not the most important thing, but having the best approach and strategy is,” said Ashenden. “These are important features for Google to bring to the table, and I expect we’ll continue to see incremental additions along these lines over the next year or so.

“It will take time for customers to embrace the new features, so it makes sense to introduce them gradually and gauge feedback and maintain customer support along the way," she said.

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