Google puts tools rivaling Microsoft, Slack at center of I/O

Google unfurled an expansive range of consumer products and gee-whiz research at the kickoff of its marquee annual conference, with announcements spanning quantum computing, garrulous bots, automated photo animations and dermatology screenings.

The technology giant bookended the presentation with tools made for workplaces, underscoring the company’s desire to position itself as a leader in the less splashy business of enterprise software.

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Alphabet Inc.’s Google opened its I/O conference on Tuesday, held virtually, by unveiling a series of upgrades to Workspace, its collaboration software suite. Traditionally, Google has devoted the conference to mobile software. Instead, it led off with a presentation from Javier Soltero, a vice president hired from Microsoft Corp. to manage Workspace. Soltero introduced a new ability to insert Google Meet video calls directly inside other tools like Docs and Sheets, a direct challenge to Microsoft’s Teams product and offerings from Zoom Video Communications Inc.

Google also touted Smart Canvas, a project-management feature. This means Google is plowing forward in a market full of much smaller players, such as Atlassian Corp., Asana Inc., and Inc., which is undergoing a blockbuster acquisition of workplace-chat service Slack.

Even Google’s most far-out release of the day was framed as an assist to its cloud business. At the end of the keynote, Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai teased a new project called Starline. Using compression technology, Google showed off a way to hold video calls with people as 3D holograms. “It’s as close as we can get to the feeling of sitting across from someone,” Pichai said.

“We have spent thousands of hours testing it in our own offices, and the results are promising,” he added. “There’s also excitement from our lead enterprise partners.” He mentioned media and health-care companies, but didn’t offer further details.

Revenue in Google’s cloud division grew 46% to $4.05 billion during the first quarter. The company doesn’t share Workspace sales.

Here are some other key highlights from Google I/O on Tuesday:

  • Next generation AI: Pichai demonstrated LaMDA, the latest version of Google’s system for understanding language, with a bot speaking as a paper airplane. It’s in the research phase for now, but will presumably come to Google’s search and voice assistant.
  • Android privacy controls: Android didn’t have a major face-lift beyond new controls to let users know when apps were using their data, and a feature called “app hibernation.”
  • Computing advances: Google announced new plans around a quantum computing center; advances in AI-enhanced screening for skin cancer and radiology; and a new version of its TPU chip, which it said will be available to cloud customers later this year.
  • Less racist photos: Google said it has added features to its phone camera and software to better capture people of color following several embarrassing incidents over the years.
  • Search controls: Google added a slew of new privacy controls on Android and search, including a new way to zap your most recent searches.
  • Shopify integration: An announcement of a new way for Shopify Inc. merchants to get in front of shoppers on Google services boosted shares of the Canadian software company, which gained 3.4% for the day.
  • Samsung partnership: Google is teaming up with Samsung on Wear, Google’s software platform to convince more people to buy Android smartwatches. Samsung previously had its own software. The latest offering includes more integrations with the software and Fitbit, which Google owns, to compete with Apple Watch.

— Mark Grant with assistance from Nico Grant (Bloomberg Mercury)