Google puts tools rivalling Microsoft and Slack at centre of I/O

The new ways to give people more privacy controls come after years of scrutiny on Google's behaviour.
The new ways to give people more privacy controls come after years of scrutiny on Google's behaviour.PHOTO: REUTERS

MOUNTAIN VIEW (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - 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.

Alphabet's Google opened its I/O conference on Tuesday (May 18), 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 Mr Javier Soltero, a vice president hired from Microsoft to manage Workspace.

Mr 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.

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, Asana and Salesforce.com, 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," Mr 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 did not offer further details.

Revenue in Google's cloud division grew 46 per cent to US$4.05 billion (S$5.38 billion) during the first quarter. The company does not share Workspace sales.

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

Android privacy controls

Android did not have a major face-lift beyond new controls to let users know when apps were using their data, and a feature called "app hibernation".

Search controls

Ever wish you could delete the last thing you searched for on Google? Now Google will let you.

Google announced the new feature as part of a package of privacy controls the company is pushing out to appease consumers and regulators.

Users now can tap on a tab inside their Google accounts to remove the last 15 minutes of search history.

The company has offered a feature to clear search histories, but people have found that data useful for tools like Maps or been unaware of the ability to delete it.

The new ways to give people more privacy controls come after years of scrutiny on the search giant's behaviour.

"We never sell your personal information to anyone," Ms Jen Fitzpatrick, a Google senior vice president, said at the virtual event. "It's simply off limits."

During the event, Google also introduced new tools for password protections and data permission for its Android software.

"No one else offers this kind of technically enforced, verifiable privacy," Ms Fitzpatrick added.

Apple has spent years positioning its iPhones as far more secure than devices using Google's Android operating system.

Samsung partnership

Google is teaming up with Samsung on Wear, Google's software platform to convince more people to buy Android smartwatches.

It means Samsung will use Google's Wear OS for its upcoming Galaxy smartwatches instead of its own Tizen platform.

"We're bringing the best of Wear and Tizen into a single, unified platform," said Google Wear project director Bjorn Kilburn.

"By working together we have been able to take strengths of each and combine them into an experience that has faster performance, longer battery life and more of the apps you love available for the watch."

The combination will allow all device markets to use this platform, creating an ecosystem that could challenge Apple, the longtime leader in the smartwatch segment with about a third of the market, as Google integrates its newly acquired wearables maker Fitbit.

Samsung vice president Janghyun Yoon said in a separate statement the South Korean firm "constantly pursues new ways to meet the ever-changing needs of consumers," adding, "That's why we decided to team up with Google... to bring the best of our platforms together into one unified experience."

Less racist photos

Google said it has added features to its phone camera and software to better capture people of colour following several embarrassing incidents over the years.

Next generation AI 

Mr Pichai demonstrated LaMDA, the latest version of Google's system for understanding language, with a bot speaking as a paper airplane. It is in the research phase for now, but will presumably come to Google's search and voice assistant.

Computing advances

Google announced new plans around a quantum computing centre; 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.

Shopify integration

An announcement of a new way for Shopify merchants to get in front of shoppers on Google services boosted shares of the Canadian software company, which gained 3.4 per cent for the day.