This week, Google retooled Google Apps for Work, signaling the company’s ever-deepening interest in the enterprise market. It makes sense: the opportunities for growth are enormous, as is the competition. Apple continues to leverage its partnership with IBM to muscle its way in. Facebook will reportedly soon launch its business-focused Facebook at Work. And Microsoft still reigns, thanks to its entrenched Office apps.
To increase its enterprise stake, Google’s leveraging one of its key strengths: “G Suite,” as Apps for Work are now called, is infused with a bushel of new machine-intelligence perks.
A feature called Quick Access in Google Drive on Android, for instance, uses interactions with your colleagues and your calendar to surface the files most relevant to you at any given time. Google Calendar now optimizes your meeting times based on when invitees are free, plus when you’ve historically preferred to have them. And in Google Sheets, you can interrogate the data in the Explore feature by typing anything in natural language into a simple search bar.
But wait, you might ask: hasn’t Google long dabbled in this sort of advanced data-crunching, including in Google Apps? The short answer is yes. Machine learning has blocked spam in Gmail, suggested short, human-sounding responses to incoming emails in Inbox, and enabled voice typing in Google Docs. Artificial intelligence in general has a long and storied history at Google. You can see it in products that instantly translate languages on the fly to a system that beat the human champion in the ancient game of Go.
Google isn’t quite doing anything radical here, says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. “There’s not a huge overhaul [with G Suite],” he says. “Nothing changes overnight with a rebranding.”
Even more crucially, the improvements Google has made still don’t measure up to Microsoft.
Microsoft, King of Enterprise
Yes, Microsoft still dominates enterprise apps. Even though your personal life may revolve around Google, it shouldn’t take long to think of when you last had to upload a file to a website with a *.doc or *.xls format. In a lot of ways, Microsoft Office seems ineradicable from our digital culture—even as other buzzy startups and services like Slack or Box or Trello are gaining traction.
That’s not just anecdotal. According to Microsoft, one in seven people—or 1.2 billion in total—use Office today. And its strength is in more than just numbers. It’s also still far more feature-packed.
“[Google’s G Suite] is still much smaller than Microsoft Office, and the Microsoft Office suite is still far more capable overall,” Dawson says. “If you need more advanced functionality, it’s quite likely that the G Suite won’t do the trick for you.” Dawson points out that while coworkers might start off using Google Docs to collaborate on writing, say, a press release, it’s Microsoft that still has the advanced templates and formatting functionalities required when it comes time to actually send it out.
Of course, Google’s not without its own footholds. More than one billion users access Gmail monthly. It’s convenient for them to use the suite of apps Google has already attached to their email address, says Vanessa Thompson, research director for enterprise social networks at market industry firm IDC. Plus, as Dawson points out, increasingly popular Chromebooks have these apps built into the machines. Last year, Google Chromebooks accounted for more than half of all devices sold into US classrooms. Three years before, their share was less than 1 percent. That’s a whole lot of youngsters growing up as users of G suite, who may want to continue using the apps when they finally reach working age.
Still, Google’s a long way from challenging Microsoft’s dominance, however many fancy new features or adolescent fans it acquires For one, as Thompson says, Google hasn’t found the same strategic partnerships with the likes of IBM, Salesforce, Oracle, and Adobe that other traditionally consumer-focused tech companies have. “Getting your work done in the context of where you need to be is very important,” she says. Meanwhile, integrations like Microsoft Office and Salesforce’s CRM (customer relationship management) software, means users don’t have to fret about switching back and forth between apps. Not to mention, Microsoft infuses its products with machine learning too. Its new Tell Me feature, released in the latest version of Office, is a text field that allows for natural language searching, while its email app learns your habits and figures out which email matters to you the most. Microsoft even recently added online document collaboration. Innovation runs both directions.
Ultimately, Dawson says, machine intelligence doesn’t matter as much to users as practical benefits. “Yes, there’s a lot of talk about AI,” he says. “But where the rubber hits the road is: do these features actually help people in daily life?” It’s neat if Google can predict what document you’d most likely want to work on now. But sometimes, knowing your way around mail merge matters more.