Google's productivity suite updated with dictation, integrated search and more

New features are focused on making students and teachers more productive

Google rolled out a big set of updates to its productivity suite today aimed primarily at enhancing its capabilities for students and teachers.

The updates include a new tool that lets users search for content to add to a document on Android, and support for dictating documents to their computer using Google's voice recognition capabilities. Voice Typing is only available for the desktop version of Chrome at the moment, and allows users to speak into their computer and get a transcription in real time.

Like other voice recognition systems built into Windows and OS X, Voice Typing recognizes and inserts punctuation and other formatting when users say things like "comma" and "new paragraph." While it's primarily aimed at individuals who want to dictate a document to their computer, Google For Education Director of Project Management Jonathan Rochelle said that it's "quite magical" for taking notes in a meeting.

Using Google's voice recognition technology to power Voice Typing means that it supports transcription of voices speaking in almost 40 languages, much like Google's other voice recognition products.

Research lets users search Google inside the Docs app for Android, and pull content from the web into their documents. That way, students with Android tablets or phones can find an image on the web and then immediately add it into a report without having to switch back and forth between their document and a browser.

Image search through Research has SafeSearch enabled by default (since it's built for students) and will only search images that are licensed for reuse. It's similar to the Bing image search functionality Microsoft added to its Office apps last year that lets users search the web for pictures and add them to documents.

Google also added a "See New Changes" button to Docs on the desktop that lets users get a quick view of what has changed inside a document that they shared with other people since the last time they looked at it. Users can see the changes (highlighted in different colors based on who made them) by scrolling down through the document, or by clicking back and forth on a set of arrows.

It's similar to the "track changes" features in other word processors, but keeps watching all the time without requiring users to enable or disable the feature. What's more, people who don't care about detailed analyses of what moved since the last time they opened a document don't have to see any of the highlighting unless they absolutely want to.

Like previous iterations of Docs, it's still possible for people to view the full revision history for a document and flip back and forth different versions if they want to see what has changed between them.

Explore gives users a new way to view large spreadsheets full of data without requiring the help of a data analyst. Google Sheets will automatically generate live-updating charts and graphs that provide insights about the data users have fed into it. People can also highlight specific rows in a sheet in order to get information about just that specific data set.

All of the data processing is handled on a user's device, too, so users concerned about Google's cloud getting its hands on their sensitive information can rest easier. Right now, the feature is only available for Chrome on computers and Android, so iOS users will be left out in the cold on this one.

Forms has been redesigned to let users analyze their results right from the same screen they used to collect information, rather than requiring them to wade through a spreadsheet in order to see what people have said. Users who want to get access to more powerful analysis capabilities available in Sheets can still delve into the information there, too.

Improving its productivity tools for education is an important move for Google, since its Apps for Education suite is actively used by more than 50 million people. The company has placed a significant emphasis on developing its education business, and it's easy to understand why -- Chromebooks are massively popular in the education market, and getting students hooked on Google products early may keep them in the company's ecosystem later in life rather than turning to something like Microsoft Office.

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Blair Hanley Frank

IDG News Service
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