Google adds AI features to G Suite, including ‘Smart Reply’ for Hangouts Chat

The company also touted new security and data region management tools, and said Gmail’s Smart Compose is now available for business users.

Google is adding new artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to G Suite as it aims to attract more users to its cloud-based productivity apps.

There are now 4 million organizations using G Suite, which includes tools such as Docs, Sheets and Gmail; the that’s up from 3 million paid customers a year ago. (For reference, there are 135 million monthly paying users of Microsoft’s Office 365, though the comparison is not an apples-to-apples comparison.)

Google hopes that incorporating AI in its workplace productivity tools will help give it an edge over its main rival. Smart Reply, which was unveiled for Gmail two years ago, is now accessible within Hangouts Chat, the text-based collaboration tool that serves as Google’s competitor to Slack. 

Smart Reply uses AI to suggest brief responses to messages in Hangouts Chat that are “casual enough for chat, but still professional enough for the enterprise,” said Prabhakar Raghavan, vice president for Google Apps. 

Speaking at the Google Cloud Next event here today, Raghavan said that Smart Reply has proved a popular way to speed up email communications, with more than 10% of consumer Gmail replies now kicked off with an AI-written response.

“This is an approach you will see us taking repeatedly: we will build an AI feature on one G Suite product and then bring it to others,” said Raghavan.

Meanwhile Gmail users in G Suite will soon gain access to Smart Compose, an AI feature that was announced at Google’s I/O conference earlier this year and released to consumers in May. It will become available in the next few weeks, said Raghavan. Smart Compose learns users’ behavior over time, enabling the AI to autocomplete email text with suggestions for commonly used phrases, greetings and personal details such as addresses.

Other AI features include grammar correction with Docs - now available in beta - which adapts Google’s Translate capabilities to the English language to provide suggestions for changes to English language text.  

Google also offered a glimpse of voice commands for its Hangouts Meet team video conferencing tool, which will be offered to some customers later this year. Users will be able to start a video conference by saying, “Hey Google, start the meeting,” said Raghavan, with more voice capabilities to be added later.

“By embracing AI and enabling voice commands, Google’s strategy is aiming squarely at Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana as the speech assistant wars intensify beyond the home and into workplace,” said Angela Ashenden, a principal analyst at CCS Insights.

Google unveiled several security features, too, with a new investigation tool launched for security center - the G Suite security management platform launched earlier this year. This allows IT admins to investigate suspicious behavior such as large file transfers, revoke user access and delete malicious emails from a single console.  

The company also detailed new capabilities to manage G suite data across geographic regions. Users will be able to choose where primary data is stored for key G Suite apps, such as in Europe or US, depending on enterprise requirements. 

Ashenden said G Suite has had “solid” momentum over the past year, and the new AI and security features should help it grow further. “Another key focus was Google’s meeting solution Hangouts Meet which has been the unsung hero of Google’s productivity and collaboration suite in the past,” said Ashenden. 

Read more: Alphabet trounces profit estimates as costs come into check

Even so, Patrick Moorhead, founder of Moor Insights & Strategy, stressed that Google still has some way to go to create serious problems for Microsoft.  

“These new features are nice, particularly the security features, but Google didn’t introduce anything that fundamentally changes the game versus Office 365,” said Patrick Moorhead, founder of Moor Insights & Strategy. “Microsoft looks to be gaining ground at a much more rapid pace.”

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