As Google talks up privacy, Smart Canvas levels up its work suite

As Google evolves from exposing privacy options to enabling privacy defaults, its Smart Canvas option for Workspace represents its strongest effort to facilitate team workflows.

In March, I wrote about how Google has pursued a sometimes circuitous route that has driven a gradual shift from the ad-driven model that continues to fuel its growth to one that relies more on institutional (corporate and educational) products and services. Perhaps Larry Page and Sergey Brin foresaw challenges with long-term dependence on the ad model when they imbued the company with its famously diffuse focus or perhaps the company been more reactively reading the shifting regulatory climate.

In any case, further signs of Google's shifting mindset were on display at this year's virtual Google I/O. At past I/O events, the company's embrace of privacy mostly entailed a Facebook-like path of making more opt-out options available. In contrast, this year's socially subdued event in which many presentations brimmed with mentions of "private" and "privacy" saw Google focus more on transparency and privacy-leaning defaults.

These included showing off a running log of information requests from Android apps, setting Google account defaults to delete activity history after 18 months, and enabling a way to quickly delete the last 15 minutes of search history. The company also played up its work to pioneer the "post-cookie" future initiatives such as its FLoC initiative headed to Chrome but meeting widespread resistance elsewhere.

While these features represent a kind of addition-by-subtraction, though, the company announced its biggest addition to its productivity suite in years. Smart Canvas provides a layer of context and collaboration around Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides with a modular set of tools that integrate existing Google communication apps, some new functionality, and an invitation to third parties to add more. 

Smart Canvas' features play off the real-time collaborative editing and commenting that Google's suite pioneered. It also represents one of Google's more successful launches when it comes to avoiding stepping on the toes of its other products. Rather than integrate group chat and video meetings like Microsoft Teams, the company has pursued more of a "Slack+Zoom" approach with Google Chat and Google Meet. Chat offers a Rooms feature, which is akin to Slack's channels.

Unlike Slack or Teams, though, Chat can't host scores of embeddable applets. But Smart Canvas' extensible chips architecture will vie to attract support from third-party vendors with tools that can enhance workflow. Slack has used its first-mover advantage to become king of these integrations although Teams has a large and growing collection.

One of Google's first-party chips is a table feature similar to Microsoft Lists, useful for simple project management or mini-databases. It is a great complement to Teams, but Microsoft has not yet made it available to individuals. In contrast, and bucking the trend of Google's trend of requiring subscriptions for more advanced features, Smart Canvas will be made available to everyone for free.

The tables feature overlaps with the aptly named Tables, an obscure output of the company's Area 120 incubator. Google acknowledges this, but says the Tables team is taking the tool in another direction. Smart Canvas integrates with Google Meet, which also saw significant upgrades at I/O as well as the company's quasi-app Tasks. However, Google Keep, its sticky note-inspired scratchpad that can also create checklists, remains on the periphery.

With Smart Canvas, Google not only takes its productivity suite to a new level but changes the landscape of workflow tools; collaborate can now choose among the centralized Slack/Teams model, Google's contextual layer model, and a loose family of apps that straddle compound documents, project management, and no-code development.

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