This week Google eliminated the need to pay to access its Google Workspace suite of productivity tools, rolling the web-based tools out to everyone with a Gmail account. It's a bold move that's clearly driven by Google's desire to take on Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams in the space for free remote collaboration tools.
That means most of us will soon gain access to a redesigned Gmail that brings with it some extra features aimed at making it easier to share and collaborate with others. It's a big move for Google, though you might not even notice the change unless you set your Chat preference to "Google Chat" (instead of "Classic Hangouts") in the Chat and Meet section of your Gmail settings menu.
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When you do change your Chat preference, you should notice a new "Rooms" tab in Gmail that's separate from the Chat tab. Rooms were previously only available to paying customers of Google Workspace, but starting this week they're available to everyone. (Conversely, free G Suite accounts will have to start paying by July 2022.)
Right now, these Rooms basically look like standalone group chats, but Google says it plans to roll out updates over the summer that will redesign the interface and add in features like topic threading, presence indicators, and custom statuses (AKA away messages) as it rebrands Rooms into Spaces.
The goal seems to be getting Gmail's billions of users to start using Spaces the way so many of us use Slack and Teams: as central gathering points for collaborators to chat, share links, leave comments, and launch meetings. It's all part of the grand vision of a unified Google Workspace available to everyone that the company put forth at its I/O developer conference earlier this year, when it unveiled Smart Canvas.
Pitched as the connective tissue of Google Workspace, Smart Canvas is a key part of this Gmail redesign, and you should be able to check it out for yourself right now: simply open a Google Doc and type the @ symbol to open a small window (Google calls these "smart chips") with a context-sensitive list of people to tag and documents/calendar events to embed.
More smart chip functionality and more features in general will be added to Google Workspace products like Sheets and Meet throughout 2021 to make them more competitive with free collaboration tools like Slack.
Between now and September for example, Google expects to launch the Google Meet Companion Mode (pictured in a mockup above) it previewed at I/O last month. Designed for the increasingly common hybrid workplace where meetings will often contain both in-person and remote participants, Companion Mode will let physically present meeting participants access Google Meet tools like chat, screen-sharing, and polls, either by launching the app on their phone or via a separate web app.
Google Workspace Individual
The search giant also began selling a new version of Workspace this week: Google Workspace Individual, a subscription service targeted at individual business owners. Those who pay for Workspace Individual can expect to gain access to better video meeting tools, personalized email marketing, smart booking services, and other features Google intends to roll out in the future.