Chips, canvases, and chats: Google Workspace’s plan to crush Office

Google’s Cloud Next developer event is today, and the Google Workspace team is using the opportunity to announce a number of new tools across Gmail, Docs, Meet, and the rest of the Workspace ecosystem. Google is investing more in its “smart canvas” concept for Docs, letting users embed information and apps inside a document. It’s also releasing some new Meet features with hybrid work in mind, like automatic meeting transcriptions and an AI-powered framing tool for conference room cameras that aims to keep speakers in focus at all times.

Google Workspace also has a new leader: Aparna Pappu, who took the job as VP and GM of Workspace in July after Javier Soltero left the company. Pappu has been at Google since 2007, and did a long stint on the ads team before joining the Workspace group in 2017 (back when it was called G Suite). After previously leading the Workspace engineering team, she’s now fully in charge of the business.

The way Pappu sees it, Google Workspace may be a tiny player in the business software game — Microsoft Office still owns almost 90 percent of the market — but it has reasons for optimism. “I think about the fact that we have a generation of people who use Google Docs in school, and are entering the workforce in large numbers,” she says. Google’s data says those people prefer Workspace to Office in a big way, and Pappu is ready to win the market over time.

Google is not famous for its patience, though; the company often seems much happier launching and killing new ideas than trying to improve old ones. That makes one of Pappu’s jobs even harder: to bring a coherent and consistent vision to Workspace, and then keep it that way.

Pappu says there’s no plan to build yet another messaging app, that the extremely confusing Meet/Duo merger is still the plan, and that bringing together all of Google’s communication products is still the right thing to do. In fact, she says a big part of the overall Workspace roadmap involves bringing more apps closer together.

“The origin story, if you will, of our product set was independent products,” Pappu acknowledges. Gmail, Docs, Keep and the rest were separate tools with separate teams and separate goals, and were only later Voltron-ed together into a single suite of products. In recent years, Google has begun to do more to make them feel connected, most of all with the “chips” concept that lets users embed content from one app into another. (Google also announced at Cloud Next that it’s bringing chip support to Sheets.)

Pappu rattles off examples of what this kind of connection looks like: automatically showing calendar availability in email; firing up a Meet call within a Google Doc so you can chat and edit in a single tab; assigning a task in a Sheets comment that shows up in the Tasks app. For years, Google seemed content to build redundant functionality into every app, so everything could do everything. In the last couple of years it has instead tried to let each tool do its job, and just knit them all a bit tighter together. Pappu says she wants to do even more of that, and ultimately use AI and machine learning to make these tools work together more proactively as well.

She also wants to turn Workspace into much more of a platform. “We cannot build everything,” she says, “and nor do we have the arrogance to think that we have all the ideas in the world. We want to unleash the creativity of the internet – who doesn’t want that?” Her plan will sound familiar to anyone who’s following companies like Notion, Coda, and ClickUp; everybody wants to be the platform for the future of work tools.

Google is rolling out new APIs for Meet and Chat that will let developers start meetings or send messages from their apps. But the Workspace team is also beginning to bring more apps into the platform itself, especially in Meet. Figma, Asana, and Atlassian, for instance, joined an early program that lets users work on outside documents within a Meet call. More integrations like that are coming. As the company tries to expand the capability of the Docs canvas and the embedded chips idea, it’s looking at ways to bring non-Google tools into your Google tools.

This is all happening amid dramatic changes in the way people work. Many people are now back in the office after years of working from home, but others will never go back. Hybrid work is here to stay, and nobody knows yet how it’s actually supposed to work. Including Google.

For Pappu, the only answer is to offer as much flexibility as possible. “Can I trust my employees to work from anywhere?” she asks. “Can they bring their own devices? Should I trust them on a Wi-Fi network in a Starbucks somewhere?”

And, just as important, how do things work in the office? Pappu brings up Google’s Companion mode a few times, and mentioned the app’s ability to let in-the-room meeting participants access polls, chat, and the like as an example of how to make hybrid work. On her team, she says, everybody is always required to use Companion mode.

With everything, Pappu says, the data drives the decisions — as long as you’re willing to take a long-term view of the data. “You don’t get to say, ‘we announced it, I’m done,’” she says, echoing a well-known fact of life within Google: everybody likes to ship new things, but nobody seems to want to keep working on them. “You need that commitment.”

At one point during our conversation, I asked Pappu about her plan to win over Excel users: specifically, the hardcore, pivot-tabling, formula writing users, who never seem to touch the mouse and play Excel like an instrument. Those people won’t get what they need from Google Sheets — and those people often tend to be the ones making software buying decisions.

Faced with the question, Pappu laughed. (She asks this question a lot herself.) She says that Google did build a lot of Excel compatibility features over the last couple of years, but there’s just no out-Exceling Excel. “If we have 10-million-cell Google Sheets, guess what will happen? They’re going to be like, ‘Can I have 25 million?’”

Instead, Google’s plan is to convert people to a new way of working. “We’re finding that if you make the on ramp easy and similar enough, you can unleash the power of a new way of working without being strapped to the past.” Don’t dump your data into a spreadsheet, she says; put it in BigQuery, and use Data Studio and Looker to visualize it.

Ultimately, Pappu seems to think, Google Workspace is set up to win in the long run. It’s what younger users know; it’s what users who can choose tend to choose. Microsoft is still the giant in the space, and Office has made huge strides as a cloud-based tool, but Pappu is betting the future just looks more like Workspace’s roadmap than Microsoft’s. Her job is to turn a long disjointed suite of products into a single system that works everywhere and with everything users need. And then, more importantly, not get antsy and somehow screw it up.