The Internet king is contemplating an expanding frontier.
In 1998, a pair of Stanford University doctoral students named Sergey Brin and Larry Page ventured out into the wild, wild west of the early World Wide Web. They had but a few ideas about algorithmic Internet page-ranking and the daunting, self-given goal of “organizing the world’s information.” Eleven years later, their company, Google, is projected to earn $19 billion in 2009. Some 70% of all U.S. Internet searches take place through Google’s site, compared to 20% through Yahoo, and less than 6% through Microsoft’s MSN.
Is Google, by virtue its of visibility and the success it’s already achieved, destined to dominate the Internet era? Business columnist Randall Stross offers fresh insight in his recent book, Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know.
From its founding to its future, the picture Stross paints is of an enterprise that benefited as much from the savvy of its creators as the overconfidence of its two primary rivals. Indeed, if Google plays the scrappy, earnest underdog in Stross’s story, Yahoo and Microsoft are the bragging bullies who are brought down by their egos.
In the late 1990s, Yahoo was the heavy favorite to dominate the growing online service field. It had an established presence with plenty of money for advertising. It was also a one-stop-shop destination site offering classifieds, news stories, weather reports, and, of course, search-engine capability directly on its homepage. Users could type a query into the search box and receive results from a directory of Web sites rigorously culled and verified by trained technicians. Yahoo was convinced that an index assembled by humans was a great asset.
Brin and Page made it their mission to automate the process of finding new sites and ranking them. Their work soon caught Yahoo’s attention. Faced with too many new Web sites to record by hand, and too many search requests, Yahoo contracted the then much-smaller Google to analyze new Web pages in 2000. Yahoo paid the fledgling startup relatively little for this service, and the search-engine results were displayed through Yahoo’s portal, thus denying Google even the opportunity to build name recognition. What Google gained was the opportunity to grow its own index, which allowed it to perfect its search model.
“Google understood, well before its chief rivals, Yahoo and Microsoft,? that an information collection that attempts to be complete expands on a scale far beyond anything that can be curated by human editors,” writes Stross. “Just as the human mind depends upon neural connections that develop spontaneously, so, too, digital collections of information will rely on interconnections that are created by software, without human agency. Software algorithms are created by humans, but the complexity of the end products far exceeds anything that human creators could produce manually.”
What is perhaps most significant (and terrifying) about the Google phenomenon is its self-replicating nature. As the company’s interconnected algorithms organize more information, the organizational process improves. As users get better at Googling, the company learns more about the pages being searched and its users. As the company’s revenue model proves more successful, it attracts more ads, in turn attracting more revenue t o make acquisitions like YouTube, which attracts more ads and more revenue.
Google has since taken aim directly at the once-indomitable Microsoft by offering online word processing and spreadsheet applications through its Google Docs program. If all goes according to plan, users of the future will search, e-mail, and even do office work all through Google without ever stopping by Windows, Microsoft’s operating system, or even saving anything on their hard drives. This Internet-as-office idea is what tech-watchers call cloud computing: Your files are available to you wherever you go. Every computer becomes your computer. The popularity of the trend bodes ill for Microsoft.
“Microsoft’s on-off-on bids for Yahoo in 2008 were an expression of the company’s rather desperate wish to better meet the competitive challenge posed by Google by moving the place of battle from Microsoft’s home ground, office applications, to Google’s home ground, Web search and advertising. In May, when lack of agreement between the two companies about Yahoo’s valuation led Microsoft to withdraw its offer, Microsoft changed tactics, but no one doubted that its most pressing strategic challenge remained Google,” writes Stross. “As Microsoft devotes more attention – and more of its treasury – to its online businesses, no major software company will remain to defend the notion that personal data should remain physically close to the individual and scattered among different media and devices. Centralization of data seems inexorable, and as it proceeds, the concerns about protecting individual privacy seem likely to diminish.”
What does Google’s gargantuan capability mean for its future? Google CEO Eric Schmidt – in a moment of extreme confidence about the company’s long-term viability – forecast that Google would succeed in its mission of organizing the world’s information “in about 300 years.”
Meanwhile, the company is looking toward further enhancing search.
“There are a lot of exciting things going on right now,” Google research director Peter Norvig told THE FUTURIST. He’s enthusiastic about Google’s burgeoning online translation tools, which allow users to parse text between any pair of 34 different languages in more than 1,000 combinations. But what excites him most is how Google is reinventing the search experience entirely. The company that made a fortune linking key words together is now looking beyond type, beyond the keyboard, for new ways to collect, organize, and present information.
“With our voice search you can now speak your queries, and I think we’ll see more uses of voice input and output in the near future,” says Norvig. “What if the information you want is not in words at all, but in images or video? We’re working on that, too. Of course we’ve had the ability for years to search for images or videos, but it was done by matching key words to the annotations that surround images and video, not to the content itself. We’re now starting to search the content. We already have face recognition in our Picasa Web Albums – you label a couple of faces as ‘Aunt Sally,’ and from then on we’ll label new pictures of her as you upload them. It won’t be perfect if there are severe shadows or if the view is not front-on, but it is a step towards understanding the content, and we’ll continue to progress in this direction.”
As to whether 300 years might be a realistic time frame to organize the world’s information, Norvig says, “I don’t think it makes much sense to try to speculate about 300 years in the future. Three hundred years ago, we had neither steam, internal combustion, nor electrical motors; it would have been hard to predict where technology would be today. I think Eric was saying that it would take 300 years if everything proceeds at the current pace. But we’ll probably have an accelerated pace of both the production of new information (because more people will be creating more permanently storable content, and because there will be more opportunity for creating richer media content, like video) and an accelerated pace of the indexing of that information (because more of it will be created digitally and available to be indexed right from the start).”
Read another way, Google is not only on track to meet its lofty goal; it’s actually ahead of schedule.
– Patrick Tucker
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2009