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For Google’s G Suite, getting down to business is paying off

Google is giving its cloud-based productivity suite more tools aimed at making it a viable Microsoft Office alternative for big, change-averse companies.

For Google’s G Suite, getting down to business is paying off

In 2006, when Google announced an online mini-suite called Docs & Spreadsheets, TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington declared it to be a “shot across the bow of Microsoft Office.” It certainly looked like one. But over the subsequent dozen years, as Docs & Spreadsheets evolved into Google Apps—which was rebranded as G Suite in 2016–Microsoft’s decades-old suite proved to be less vulnerable to attack than you might have guessed. Today, Office continues to dominate workplace productivity and Office 365, its subscription version, is a growth business; revenue from business customers was up 38 percent last quarter.

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Meanwhile, Google’s suite has racked up plenty of users, especially among consumers, students, and small businesses, without ever threatening Office’s hold on larger organizations. But Google hasn’t given up on the big-company market. Three years ago, it hired VMware cofounder Diane Greene to run its enterprise operation. Under the new name Google Cloud, her domain now includes an array of formerly disparate business-y efforts, including G Suite.

Google says that more than four million organizations are paying G Suite customers, up from two million a couple of years ago; some of the marquee names are Airbus, Carrefour, Colgate-Palmolive, Nielsen, Verizon, and Whirlpool. The Office hegemony is still largely in place–Google and Microsoft share different stats about their suite businesses with little overlap, which makes precise comparisons difficult–but G Suite is making progress on its own terms.

With the Google Cloud Next event currently going on in San Francisco, it’s the biggest week of the year for G Suite announcements. Last week, before the conference began, I spoke with two of the people responsible for G Suite–VP of apps Prabhakar Raghavan and VP of engineering Elissa Murphy–about some of that news and the state of G Suite in general.

The big picture

How has Google managed to double G Suite’s base of paying customers? Being part of Google Cloud, which is heavily invested in signing up business customers for web services of all sorts, has helped: “It’s very fair to say that the amount of cross-fertilization and cross-selling is dramatically higher than it was three years ago,” says Raghavan. So has the effort the company has put into simplifying mass migrations, he adds: “We’re doing lots of things to make it super easy for large accounts to move onto us and get their workforces running with G Suite.”

Prabhakar Raghavan [Photo: courtesy of Google]
Another factor: Gigantic corporations which spent years resisting the proposition of storing corporate data in some other company’s data centers rather than on their own premises have finally warmed up to the idea. (Office 365, though a subscription business, is still focused around Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other apps in their conventional desktop versions, which means that a company can embrace it without going all-in on the cloud.) G Suite’s earliest customers tended to be tech companies and startups, but “now we see visionary enterprises hop on board as well,” Murphy told me. “That really centers on being cloud-native.”

Lastly, Google’s productivity apps have been around long enough that a generation of young people entering the workforce grew up on them, not Office. One customer, Raghavan says, recently told him that “last year I hired 3,000 people and they all want G Suite.”

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A new Gmail … when companies are ready for it

When Google unveiled a meaty Gmail upgrade in April, much of what was new aimed to make the email service more palatable for corporate use, including additional measures designed to prevent employees from getting phished and features for sending confidential messages that can’t be forwarded or printed out. But instead of immediately rolling the new version out to business customers, Google offered it only as an option for companies who’d signed up for G Suite’s early-adopter program. Today, it’s making the new version available to all businesses–but still giving them the choice to turn it on or leave it off for now. (Some of the functionality announced in April is still in the process of being rolled out.)

Though Google is being careful to ensure that corporate types don’t feel like they’re being forced into a major Gmail transition on Google’s schedule rather than their own, reaction to the interface tweaks and other changes has been positive, according to Raghavan. “We were terrified that moving a single pixel would result in a Twitter storm,” he says. “Every indication so far has been that’s not the case.”

Along with the additional security capabilities and other stuff straightforwardly designed to please the people who make purchasing decisions for big companies, the new Gmail has some more out-there additions, including Smart Compose, which uses AI to try to complete to complete your thoughts as you type a message. My colleague Mark Wilson tried the technology and found it better at “meaningless conversations” than “serious topics,” an assessment which doesn’t seem out of whack with how Murphy uses the feature–she explains that she concentrates on the middle of her emails and accepts help from Smart Compose for “the fluff at the top and the fluff at the bottom.” (In addition, Smart Reply, which originated in Gmail, is coming to Google Hangouts’ chat feature.)

G Suite’s new email investigation tool. [Image: courtesy of Google]

Security investigations made easier

Elissa Murphy [Photo: courtesy of Google]
Another new email feature, the “investigation tool,” is still reserved for the early adopter program, and part of the security center used by G Suite administrators. Designed to help clean up after attacks such as phishing attempts, it allows for efficient examination of multiple email accounts from one dashboard. If you were responsible for such an effort, for instance, you could search for users who’d received a fraudulent message referencing their 401K accounts. Once you’d found them, you could delete dangerous messages in bulk and then pivot into determining whether any of the recipients had been lured into sharing confidential information outside the company. It’s not that this research would be otherwise impossible: “You grab logs from multiple places, you run a script, and eventually you get there,” Murphy says. “The point is to make it a one-stop shop.”

Google Hangouts is getting Smart Reply, which originated in Gmail. [Animation: courtesy of Google]

Google Voice writ large

In an announcement I would not have anticipated, Google is unveiling an enterprise edition of Google Voice, its venerable (though sometimes neglected) consumer-oriented service which gives you a phone number which isn’t tied to a particular phone. Initially available to members of the G Suite early adopter program–with eventual pricing TBD–the new version will let businesses manage numbers in bulk, port in existing numbers, and create routing trees. It’ll also be integrated with its G Suite mates: “If somebody is out of the office and known to be so because of their calendar, we can ring through to a backup person,” says Raghavan.

The company has been testing Google Voice’s new business incarnation since last fall. “We thought we should start with smaller businesses, but we actually found fairly big companies demanding it pretty hard.” Raghavan says.

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Google Docs’ new grammar checker. [Photo: courtesy of Google]

Translation into correct English

Members of G Suite’s early-adopter program are getting a grammar-checking feature built into the Docs word processor–which, at first blush, might sound like catch-up with the one already built into Microsoft Word or an alternative to using Grammarly. (Last year, Microsoft also gave Word AI-infused features designed to help users avoid linguistic faux pas such as passive phrasing and repetitive wording.) Raghavan says that Google’s new feature is different than existing ones because it leverages the company’s long experience in automated language translation: “Our grammar correction takes incorrect English and translates it to correct English. It’s not a brittle rules-based approach, where you have to throw humans at it to maintain it.”

Raghavan says that the grammar tool grew out of Google’s thinking about the Google Assistant and how to extend its spirit of AI-powered helpfulness to a business context. Simply offering a Google Home-type smart speaker optimized for work scenarios would satisfy “a very narrow use case” compared to providing the G Suite apps with more intelligence, he says.

More wide-ranging search

In February 2017, Google introduced Cloud Search, a service that let workers find documents and coworkers while also giving companies control over which information isn’t shared. Now it’s giving this search engine the ability to retrieve information stored in non-Google repositories, including ones which companies might host on their own servers, such as in Microsoft’s SharePoint. The goal is to make a company’s internal search as easy as, well, Googling something: “Previously folks would have to tune their enterprise index on their own, which was pretty laborious,” says Murphy.

À la carte storage

The fact that businesses are interested in searching SharePoint using Google’s engine indicates that even companies which are intrigued by aspects of Google’s sales pitch don’t necessarily want to toss out their Microsoft products in a single epoch-shifting move. That reality is also reflected in Google’s decision to begin unbundling G Suite’s Drive online storage into Drive Enterprise, a standalone service which companies can pay for if they’re not interested in the other components.

The goal, of course, is to get such companies interested in everything G Suite offers. As Murphy says, “We’re hoping to give folks the flexibility to buy that if that’s what they want, and then eventually graduate up to the full suite.”

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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