The Google Docs API is here: you can soon embed other apps into your documents

The @ symbol is about to become the most important feature in Google Docs. As Google continues to invest in making Workspace a more connected and powerful platform, it’s also opening Docs up to third-party developers in a big way. Going forward, all you’ll need to type is “@” and the name of a file or app you’re looking for, and you’ll be able to see and edit it from within Google Docs.

The feature is called “smart chips” and refers to essentially embedding other apps into Google Docs. The API that makes all this work is new — Google announced it at its Cloud Next conference along with a handful of partners. Asana users will be able to manage their tasks through an embed in Docs; you’ll be able to see visual previews of Miro and Figma boards, though there’s no in-Docs editing power there yet; and you’ll be able to see live-updating analytics through Tableau.

The underlying shift here is a huge one, and Google’s actually late to it. Notion, Coda, and other apps have grown popular by evolving digital documents into low-code website builders. You can embed YouTube videos and PDF files, work with your spreadsheets, and manage a kanban board, all within a single “document.” Google Docs, henceforth, has long been stuck emulating an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper.

(One note is that this is not exactly related to yesterday’s YouTube announcement that all creators will get @ handles going forward, but it’s interesting to see the company going all-in on the symbol as an identity marker across the internet. Of course, Google’s incredibly late to this trend, too.)

But through Google’s “smart canvas” concept, the company is trying to catch up quickly. Many of the concepts that power the idea, like a borderless page and all these third-party app embeds, will eventually also come to tools like Slides and Sheets, but Docs is an obviously useful place to start.

Users working on a Figma document inside a Meet call.

Through the Meet API, you’ll be able to use other apps in a Meet call.
Image: Google

Google’s also allowing developers more access to Meet, its other most important work tool. Developers will be able to bake basic meeting controls — start, schedule, that sort of thing — into their apps, but they’ll also be able to embed their tech within the Meet app itself in much the same way as Docs. You can co-edit a Figma document from within the Meet call, for instance, without needing two windows or a lot of tab switching. Google’s also adding similar functionality for Chat and Spaces as it tries desperately to catch up with Slack and Microsoft Teams.

The new chips are available to developers now and are coming to users in January. Aparna Pappu, the new head of Google Workspace, told The Verge that becoming a platform is a key part of the product’s future. In general, work tools are becoming more connected and integrated as they become more digital, and Google has some catching up to do if it wants to make Docs the center of employees’ work universe. If Google can convince developers to jump on board, it could win over and win back some of the users from that new generation of ultra-powerful editors.