Books: Where does Google go now?

We couldn't imagine life without it, but after a decade at the top, is there trouble on the horizon for the ubiquitous search engine? John Naughton lauds an expert view.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Few companies become so embedded in our culture that they change the language. Hoover, a vacuum-cleaner manufacturer, is one that springs to mind. McDonald's is another - as testified by the way the prefix 'Mc' (as in McJobs, McMansions etc) is used to denote anything that is impermanent, insubstantial or just plain tawdry.

But it took a long time for these companies to enter the language of everyday discourse. The extraordinary thing about Google is that it managed to achieve the same effect so quickly.

It's just 10 years old as a company, and yet within five years of its birth the verb 'to Google' was firmly established as a universal shorthand for any kind of rapid, successful online inquiry. In the period immediately after the first plane struck on 9/11, when Google was just three years old, the top query on its search engine was 'CNN.com' - which implied that even then, users had more confidence in Google's ability to find the right URL for the Cable News Network than they had in their own capacity to remember it.

Google's dominance, however, does not mean that it's well understood as a company. This is not because of lack of coverage - the mass media are fascinated by it. But wall-to-wall coverage does not always bring enlightenment. So it's nice to find a book that seeks to explain, in an informed way, what this extraordinary organisation is like - and what it's up to.

Randall Stross is an American journalist who has covered the computing industry for several decades. He has written books on Microsoft and venture capitalism, biographies of Steve Jobs and Thomas Alva Edison, and several tomes on the interaction between US business and Chinese culture. He writes regularly for the New York Times. So he has enjoyed good access to interesting people for a long time and uses this to good effect in portraying the nature, scale and ambition of the Google phenomenon.

Google was founded on the back of a good idea - that a web page with lots of inbound links is likely to be better than one with fewer. The company's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, built a search engine that implemented a kind of automated peer-review based on this insight. They called it PageRank, and variations of the algorithm are still at the heart of the company's search facilities.

It was clear right from Google's launch in 1998 that it was streets ahead of the competition. Ancient historians divide time into BC and AD; techies divide it into BG and AG.

The company has enjoyed such phenomenal success it's tempting to attribute near-supernatural powers to its founders. Hindsight and a soaring share price do strange things to one's judgment. But one of the merits of Stross's book is that it illustrates the extent to which the company's founders made it up as they went along.

It took them a long time, for example, to figure out a way of turning superior search facilities into a profitable business via targeted advertising. And Stross describes how, in some other areas, they have been less than smart.

Their initial forays into video, for example, were clueless, and the decision to buy YouTube provided an expensive and face-saving rescue. But the company still has to figure out a way of monetising that vast investment. And Google's project to digitise every printed book in existence has been clumsy and insensitive - although brute force, money and determination will probably see it fulfil this ambition eventually.

Planet Google thus provides a welcome antidote to media gush about the world's most glamorous company. At the same time, it shrewdly outlines the real sources of its strength: good strategic leadership (and a shareholding structure that denies power to Wall Street); no corporate debt; the freedom that accompanies huge profits; the buzz that attracts great talent. And - most important of all - Google's ability to create and manage the greatest distributed super-computer that the world has ever seen.

It's this last achievement that really raises the bar for competitors. In the software business, anyone can have a great idea that instantly unhorses the competition - as Google did to Yahoo!. But it would take mind-boggling resources and skill to replicate and operate a global supercomputer on the Google scale, so Brin and Page are safe for the time being.

Nothing lasts for ever, of course. Stross's account suggests three areas that may one day cause trouble for Google. First, its increasing market dominance, and the colossal amount of personal data that it now holds, may eventually trigger a regulatory backlash.

Second, the company is crucially dependent on the continued existence of an open, unregulated internet, but powerful technological and commercial pressures are building up to control the network.And third, there is the looming problem of the environmental cost of running the huge server-farms on which the company's operations depend.

So perhaps it would be best to regard Planet Google as the story so far. The most interesting bit is yet to come.

Planet Google: How one company is transforming our lives
Randall Stross
Atlantic Books
£16.99

John Naughton is professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University. A Brief History of the Future, his book on the origins of the internet, is published by Phoenix.

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