David Briddock explains why Google is introducing machine learning technology into the world
If you’re one of the millions of people using Google Drive and its associated productivity apps, then you’ll be happy to hear that they’re getting even betters – and it’s all thanks to machine learning. What does that actually mean, though? Well, we’ll let David Briddock explain that a bit further…
Google is determined to be seen as a serious competitor to Amazon, Microsoft and others in the cloud computing arena. Recently, we’ve seen the introduction of the Google Cloud, which encompasses the Google Cloud Platform, and now we have something called G Suite.
G Suite appears to be a key element in Google’s cloud-centric mission. The idea is to create a tightly integrated package of productivity apps and services that appeal to individuals, freelancers, and the self-employed, as well as large-scale international companies.
So, what exactly is G Suite, and what does it offer to you and me, and the way we work?
G Suite aims to become the essential core of someone’s daily computing activities. Activities like personal productivity and organisation, group communications, social networking, and digital resource management.
G Suite’s productivity tools compete directly with Microsoft’s Office 365 and include the now well-established Docs, Sheets, Forms, and Slides. While Gmail, Calendar, Hangouts and Google+ handle the scheduling of both personal or workrelated interactions. Behind all of these is Google Drive, which is there to ensure everything you create is stored securely in the cloud, ready to be accessed from a range of devices. Indeed, all
these apps and services are designed to operate in a reasonably seamless manner across smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops. Some of them are even applicable to Google Android, or Apple watchOS, smartwatches.
Having read that, however, you might be thinking G Suite doesn’t seem to be offering anything particularly new. After all, this selection of cloud-centric apps was previously included in Google for Work, or even earlier with Google Apps. So, you might be asking: ‘why has Google re-launched all this under a new brand name?’
Well, Google is claiming that it is enhancing the usefulness these apps and services by incorporating machine learning intelligence. What this means in practice, according to the firm, is we’ll now be freed from some of those repetitive, mechanical tasks that can take up so much time.
Of course, machine learning is a big thing at Google. Over the years it has analysed its colossal cache of user-captured data to determine the features and tasks we use most frequently and the sort of results we are after.
It must be said that this isn’t a completely new idea for Google. Gmail has offered auto-generated replies through something called ‘Smart Reply’ for quite a while now. While not exactly groundbreaking innovation, it still has plenty of supporters. In particular, it’s a feature that’s been a big hit with smartphone Gmail users wanting to send off a quick response with the minimum of effort. In fact, Google claims well over 10% of all Gmail replies from mobile devices are now sent using the Smart Reply feature.
There’s much more intelligence embedded in the G Suite app and service lineup, though. Here’s a guide to what’s on offer.
To date, Google Drive has been installed on over one billion smartphones. It’s become one of the first G Suite products to get the ‘be smarter’ makeover. Since the end of September, its had a Quick Access capability, which is designed ensure the files you’ll need are right at your fingertips as soon as Drive is opened.
Quick Access works by analysing your Drive activity, shared file interactions and things like recurring meetings. For example, if you’re in the middle of a collaborative project the relevant files will be immediately available. Google says its customer research indicates Quick Access means you’ll find the files you need up to 50% faster on average.
There’s a new addition to the G Suite lineup to assist those working in dynamic team environments. Called Team Drive, it is designed to enable fast collaborative file sharing. VP of engineering for Google Apps Prabhakar Raghavan said the facility aims “to get away from the notion that content is owned by individuals.”
With Team Drive ownership, sharing rights and roles are all managed at the team level. This helps in two key ways. New team members instantly have access to every project file, and if someone leaves all their work is still available for the benefit of other team members.
With G Suite, the Google Calendar app now comes with smart scheduling. Once again this feature is designed to simplify and speed up the calendar booking process.For example, you can ask the app to ‘find a time’ for a meeting between yourself and an invitee list. The returned suggestions take into account rooms based on your previous bookings. if there’s no obvious free slot Calendar automatically suggests times where the conflicts are easiest to resolve, such as one-to-one meetings.
G Suite aims to battle head to head with products like Microsoft’s Office 365
Google has improved Hangouts in a number of ways. For example, by applying machine intelligence to the new G Suite version we should be able to make arrangements more quickly and at times that suit everyone involved.
Firstly, it’s hopefully going to be a fair bit easier to set up Hangout meetings. When an event is created, both a short web link and a dial-in phone number are generated. In this way you can invite anyone who has access to a telephone, even if they don’t have a computer or smartphone with them at the time.
Other features include seamless integration into Calendar and instant screen sharing. While the updated user interface is said to handle up to 50 video participants; although it’s unlikely many Hangout users will want to go quite that far.
When it comes everyday productivity apps, Google is adding a behind-the-scenes work assistant called ‘Explore’ to Docs, Sheets, and Slides. Here’s how it applies to each app.
In the case of Docs, it acts as a research assistant. For example, it can find references related to specific positions in a document without resorting to the search option. Explore can use machine intelligence to automatically recommend related topics, additional content and associated images. It will also locate related Google Drive documents.
The spreadsheet Sheets app can now offer users a Natural Language Processing interface. This means spoken, data-related questions can be transformed into a formula within the app. For example you might ask, “What’s the average weekly income minus expenses?” and the spreadsheet will calculate things automatically. If it works as promised, it will surely prove useful for those who use Sheets infrequently; to do their end-of-year accounts, for example.
Turning to slides, Explore machine intelligence can be used to dynamically generate design suggestions. If you like what’s suggested it’s applied with a single click. Google claims it saves 30% of slide creation time for most users by removing the need for manual cropping, resizing or reformatting.
Although many of its apps and services are freely available, the G Suite package itself isn’t free. However, you can try out G Suite for nothing thanks to a 30-day trial. Of course, being cloud-based, there’s nothing to download – and you don’t have to submit any credit card details. After this time you can choose from two low-cost monthly packages. Designed to be attractive to freelancers, the self-employed, and small businesses the pricing pattern is very similar to its Google for Work forebear.
The cheapest option is the £3.30 per user per month package. For this, you get a single-user ‘email@example.com’ email address plus any number of group email aliases, such as ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.
You’ll also get video and voice calls, integrated online calendars, 30 GB of online storage for file syncing and sharing, security and admin controls, 24/7 phone and email support, plus tools to quickly build project sites.
The £6.60 per user per month package may be more attractive to larger businesses with extras like unlimited Drive storage (or 1TB per user if fewer than 5 users), advanced admin controls, audit and reporting insights, Google Vault for eDiscovery and email archives.
Billing is done on a monthly basis, and both plans allow users to be added and deleted at any time.
The Big Battle
Cloud computing is currently one the biggest growth areas in the IT industry. Gartner research predictions suggest that cloud technology adoption will attract around $1 trillion of global spending over the next five years. Yet recent surveys show Google is losing the Cloud services battle, trailing some distance behind the Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and IBM’s Infrastructure-as-a-Service offering. In fact, Amazon Web Services generated a very healthy $10 billion-plus in revenues all by itself.
Now the fight would appear to be on, though, and Google isn’t a company that’s afraid to stump up hefty sums of cash to turn the tables in its favour. It has invested heavily on infrastructure, for example, to the tune of around $10 billion last year alone. To put that into context, it’s almost as much as Amazon and Microsoft spent when added together.
Google is adding a behindthe-scenes work assistant called Explore to Docs, Sheets and Slides
Data Is The Key
G Suite’s machine intelligence is built on top of sophisticated machine learning algorithms formulated by interrogating huge volumes of data collected from everyone who does a web
search, sends an email, uses social networking and interacts with the firm’s online services and apps. We’ve long-known Google’s penchant for collecting masses of personalised data for its hugely successful advertisement targeting strategy, these source of its buckets of cash. Now, though, its billion-or-so daily Cloud Platform users is affording it ever-deeper insights into what apps we use, what we use them for and we’d ideally like them to work for us.
In addition, Google is expanding its cloud footprint. There’ll soon be eight new Google Cloud Regions, which cover Mumbai, Singapore, Sydney, Northern Virginia, São Paulo, London, Finland and Frankfurt. More may be added in 2017 to further geographically refine and tailor the options and data.
It’s clear G Suite aims to battle head-to-head with products like Microsoft’s Office 365, especially as Microsoft is suddenly adopting Google’s approach and seems super-keen to use Windows 10 to collect and analyse as much consumer data as possible to its own end. So, you’d suspect, we can expect more intelligence to appear in these products too. However, as we begin 2017, Microsoft is set to jack up its UK business-level prices substantially, thanks to the collapse in the value of the sterling against the US dollar. Amazon and IBM offerings are likely to become more expensive too. This would make the G Suite pricing model look even more attractive if it holds at the levels we’ve discussed.
We’d all like to be more productive and get things done in a quick efficient manner, and Google wants to make this a reality. G Suite, on the surface at least, is all about trying to make that happen with a familiar set of apps and services. It’s probably just the start, though. The promise is that G Suite will continue to grow as time goes by, and the recently announced Jamboard (see boxout) is a clue to how integrated G Suite will become with upcoming Google-made hardware and software products.
Whether all this added intelligence works for you or your company will depend on many different factors, but at least you can give it a try for free and find out for yourself – although, for things like Team Drive, you might need to sign up for the Early Adopter Program.
Is Google on the right track with G Suite? We’d love to know what you think so send in your thoughts to email@example.com.
G Suite Meeting cartoon
G Suite Team Hangouts
G Suite Jamboard