Google's work-software products always almost made sense. Docs, Slides, Sheets and Drive were integrated in smart but incomplete ways, Gmail and Hangouts and Duo and countless other messaging products never felt like they co-existed very well, and Calendar, Keep and Tasks seemed perpetually one big update from being great.
Now, Google is trying to turn its sprawling ecosystem into a coherent whole. It's called Google Workspace, and it turns many disparate apps into one Productivity Voltron. Javier Soltero, who ran G Suite and now runs Workspace, called it a "complete reimagining of the G Suite business and our vision for the future of communication and collaboration."
Workspace seems to have been the plan ever since Soltero joined Google after a stint leading Office and Outlook at Microsoft. "No part of this was a response to COVID," he said. He said in April that when he looked at the many facets of G Suite — the content creation, the messaging, the collaboration — that the question was, "How do you make it seamless? Nobody needs to experience the organizational chart of a company as they move from one product to another." Workspace's solution to that problem is to do more in every app and browser tab: Users can run a Meet call picture-in-picture on top of their presentation or document, or preview a Doc that's linked inside another Doc.
The underlying infrastructure is all about communication. Inside Workspace, it'll be easy to create a spreadsheet from within Google Chat, which will be automatically shared with everyone in a channel or group. Users will be able to work on documents and spreadsheets from within their Gmail inbox, too. For years, Google seemed satisfied by using links to make sharing and accessing things easy, but now it's pulling all the content into every place users are.
Soltero said that Google isn't just focused on helping companies talk amongst themselves, though. He said Workspace is also designed for frontline, retail and remote workers who are spread all over the place "and need to remain connected to their organizations, need to be able to have the right kind of solutions that fit their skill sets, their device profile, their situation." He also mentioned banks, customer-service centers and other customer interactions where people want to work with the products they already understand.
Workspace puts Google in direct competition with practically the entire universe of workplace productivity software. Microsoft Teams and Slack both beat Google to the realization that chat, not documents, is the center of the digital workspace, and those products have poured resources into integrating with as many work tools as possible. But Google has an advantage: Gmail is the world's dominant email provider, and Docs and Sheets and Slides are integral parts of most modern companies already. Google now has more than 2.6 billion users across these apps.
Meanwhile, Monday and Asana and so many others are competing to be the home for people's projects, documents and work. Now that can be Google, integrated seamlessly into users' inboxes. The only other company that could even attempt to combine both sides in such a way is Microsoft, and while that's clearly the plan for Microsoft 365, Google is well ahead.
Fundamentally, though, it boils down to simple math. Google wants to turn three bills — for G Suite, Slack and Zoom — into a single subscription to Workspace. That will put it squarely in Slack's crosshairs: It has accused Microsoft of growing Teams in a similar way, competing by bundling rather than actually building a better product. In one view, that's exactly what Google is doing now.
One other challenge for Google in pulling off Workspace will be one that Soltero is well aware of, because he saw it first hand at Microsoft. When you shove a lot of apps into a single place, things tend to get bloated, slow and crowded. (You could call this "Outlook Syndrome.") Sanaz Ahari, a product director on the Workspace team, said that Google's design principles centered on "simplicity, flexibility and helpfulness," but Google Calendar users spent the summer annoyed at the ever-increasing size of the Google Meet button in the app, telling them to make video calls when all they wanted to do was add an event. Then they got mad all over again in July, when Soltero announced that Chat and Rooms were coming to Gmail screens. (In fairness, it's not just Google: Yahoo recently added a tab for watching NFL games to its Mail app.) Google's tools became popular initially in part as a response to the heavy, overbearing state of Microsoft Office. Now it risks becoming the same.
Much of software development seems to exist in a perpetual cycle of bundling apps together into a more powerful whole, and then breaking them apart when all those features get too big to coexist. Work apps are deep in a bundling phase right now, and Google has more to bundle than most. That's a big opportunity, and a big challenge.