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In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives Hardcover – April 12, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
The contradictions of the Internet search behemoth are teased apart in this engaging, slightly starry-eyed business history. Wired magazine writer Levy (Hackers) insightfully recaps Google's groundbreaking search engine and fabulously profitable online ad–brokering business, and elucidates the cutting-edge research and hard-nosed cost-efficiencies underlying them. He also regales readers with the "Googley" corporate culture of hip techno-capitalism: the elitist focus on braininess, the campus game rooms, the countercultural rectitude of billionaire founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (which can read more like puerile arrogance as they roller-blade into meetings with business-suited squares). Levy's narrative updates a familiar portrait of the company, with breathless accounts of recent innovations. He offers a smart analysis of the tensions between Google's "âÇÿDon't Be Evil'" slogan and its censorship of its Chinese Web site and the privacy implications of its drive to sponge up all information—but he accepts Google's blinkered conception of e-ethics and its demands for huge tax breaks with too much complacency. (Apr.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Levy is America’s premier technology journalist. . . . He has produced the most interesting book ever written about Google. He makes the biggest intellectual challenges of computer science seem endlessly fun and fascinating. . . . We can expect many more books about Google. But few will deliver the lively, idea-based journalism of In the Plex.”
—Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Washington Post
"Almost nothing can stop a remarkable idea executed well at the right time, as Steven Levy's brisk-but-detailed history of Google, In the Plex, convincingly proves. . . . makes obsolete previous books on the company."
—Jack Shafer, The San Francisco Chronicle
"The rise of Google is an engrossing story, and nobody's ever related it in such depth."
—Hiawatha Bray, The Boston Globe
"Dense, driven examination of the pioneering search engine that changed the face of the Internet.
Thoroughly versed in technology reporting, Wired senior writer Levy deliberates at great length about online behemoth Google and creatively documents the company’s genesis from a 'feisty start-up to a market-dominating giant.' The author capably describes Google’s founders, Stanford grads Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as sharp, user-focused and steadfastly intent on 'organizing all the world’s information.' Levy traces how Google’s intricately developed, intrepid beginnings and gradual ascent over a competitive marketplace birthed an advertising-fueled 'money machine' (especially following its IPO in 2004), and he follows the expansion and operation of the company’s liberal work campus ('Googleplex') and its distinctively selective hiring process (Page still signs off on every new hire). The author was afforded an opportunity to observe the company’s operations, development, culture and advertising model from within the infrastructure for two years with full managerial cooperation. From there, he performed hundreds of interviews with past and current employees and discovered the type of 'creative disorganization' that can either make or break a business. Though clearly in awe of Google’s crowning significance, Levy evenhandedly notes the company’s more glaring deficiencies, like the 2004 cyber-attack that forced the removal of the search engine from mainland China, a decision vehemently unsupported by co-founder Brin. Though the author offers plenty of well-known information, it’s his catbird-seat vantage point that really gets to the good stuff.
Outstanding reportage delivered in the upbeat, informative fashion for which Levy is well known."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"An instructive primer on how the minds behind the world's most influential internet company function."
—Richard Waters, The Wall Street Journal
"[Steven Levy] spent much of the past three years playing anthropologist at one of the Internet's most interesting villages and set of inhabitants -- the Googleplex and the tribue of Googlers who inhabit it. . . . A deep dive into Google's culture, history and technology."
--Mike Swift, San Jose Mercury News
"The wizards of Silicon Valley often hype their hardware/software breakthroughs as 'magical' for the products' ability to pull off dazzling stunts in the blink of an eye. And true to the magicians' code, these tech talents rarely let mere mortals peer behind the curtains. . . . That's what makes Levy's just-out tome so valuable."
—Jonathan Takiff, The Philadelphia Daily News
"The most comprehensive, intelligent and readable analysis of Google to date. Levy is particularly good on how those behind Google think and work. . . . What's more, his lucid introductions to Google's core technologies - the search engine and the company's data centres - are written in non-geek English and are rich with anecdotes and analysis. . . . In The Plex teems with original insight into Google's most controversial affairs."
—Andrew Keen, New Scientist
"Steven Levy's new account [of Google], In the Plex, is the most authoritative to date and in many ways the most entertaining."
—James Gleick, The New York Review of Books
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Top customer reviews
I have read already three books about Google and this one is as good as the previous ones. Maybe better. So I should thank here Michele Catasta, who advised me to read it when I did last June my updated presentation of the 2006 one. And I should certainly have read before this book published in 2011… I have also posted many articles about the company, just check with the tag Google. But I learnt many things In the Plex, and it is what I want to focus with this post(s). And first with Chapter 1 which is about its technology.
Google was not the only one with the technology
Larry Page was not the only person in 1996 who realized that exploiting the link structure of the web would lead to a dramatically more powerful way to find information. In the summer of that year, a young computer scientist named Jon Kleinberg arrived in California to spend a yearlong postdoctoral fellowship at IBM’s research center in Almaden, on the southern edge of San Jose. With a new PhD from MIT, he had already accepted a tenure-track job in the CS department at Cornell University. […] Kleinberg began to play around with ways to analyze links. Since he didn’t have the assistance, the resources, the time, or the inclination, he didn’t attempt to index the entire web for his link analysis. […] all sorts of IBM vice presidents were trooping through Almaden to look at demos of this thing and trying to think about what they could do with it. ”Ultimately, the answer was … not much”. […] Kleinberg kept up with Google. He turned down job feelers in 1999 and again in 2000. He was happy at Cornell. He’d win teaching awards and a MacArthur fellowship. He led the life in academia he’d set out to lead, and not becoming a billionaire didn’t seem to bother him. [Pages 24-26]
There was yet a third person with the idea, a Chinese engineer named Yanhong (Robin) Li. […] Li came to the United States in 1991 to get a master’s degree at SUNY Buffalo, and in 1994 took a job at IDD Information Services in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, a division of Dow Jones. […] He realized that the Science Citation Index phenomenon could be applied to the Internet. The hypertext link could be regarded as a citation! “When I returned home, I started to write this down and realized it was revolutionary,” he says. He devised a search approach that calculated relevance from both the frequency of links and the content of anchor text. He called his system RankDev. […]Robin Li quit and joined the West Coast search company called Info-seek. In 1999, Disney bought the company and soon thereafter Li returned to China. It was there in Beijing that he would later meet—and compete with—Larry Page and Sergey Brin. [Pages 26-27] (Robin Li is the founder of Baidu.)
The technology was ultimately the best but initially nobody saw the value
Excite would buy BackRub, and then Larry alone would go to work there. Excite’s adoption of BackRub technology, he claimed, would boost its traffic by 10 percent. Extrapolating that in terms of increased ad revenue, Excite would take in $130,000 more every day, for a total of $47 million in a year. Page envisioned his tenure at Excite lasting for seven months, long enough to help the company implement the search engine. Then he would leave, in time for the fall 1997 Stanford semester, resuming his progress toward a doctorate. Excite’s total outlay would be $1.6 million, including $300,000 to Stanford for the license, a $200,000 salary, a $400,000 bonus for implementing it within three months, and $700,000 in Excite stock […] “With my help,” wrote the not-quite-twenty-four-year-old student, “this technology will give Excite a substantial advantage and will propel it to a market leadership position.” Khosla made a tentative counteroffer of $750,000 total. But the deal never happened. [Page 29]
In barely a year since Brin and Page had formed their company, they had gathered a group of top scientists totally committed to the vision of their young founders. These early employees would be part of team efforts that led to innovation after innovation that would broaden Google’s lead over its competitors and establish it as synonymous with search. […] It was at least a ten-day process with one of Google’s first crawl engineers, Harry Cheung (everyone called him Spider-Man), at his machines, monitoring progress of spiders as they spread out through the net and then, after the crawl, breaking down the web pages for the index and calculating the page rank, using Sergey’s complicated system of variables with a mathematical process using something called eigenvectors, while everybody waited for the two processes to converge. (“Math professors love us because Google has made eigenvectors relevant to every matrix algebra student in America,” says Marissa Mayer.) [Page 41]
A technology but not a science… and maybe a dangerous one
In its first few years, Google had developed a number of specialized forms of search, known as verticals, for various corpuses—such as video, images, shopping catalogs, and locations (maps). Krishna Bharat had created one of those verticals called Google News, a virtual wire service with a front page determined not by editors but algorithms. Another vertical product, called Google Scholar, accessed academic journals. But to access those verticals, users had to choose the vertical. Page and Brin were pushing for a system where one search would find Everything. [Something called Universal Search]. [Page 58]
When the Universal Search team showed a prototype to Google’s top executives, everyone realized that taking on the project […] had been worth it. The results in that early attempt were all in the wrong order, but the reaction was visceral—you typed in a word, and all this stuff came out. It had just never happened before. “It definitely was one of the riskier things,” says Bailey. “It was hard, because it’s not just science—there are some judgment calls involved here. We are to some degree using our gut. I still get up in the morning and am astonished that this whole thing even works.” Google’s search now wasn’t just searching the web. It was searching everything. In his 1991 book, Mirror Worlds, Yale computer scientist David Gelernter sketched out a future where humans would interact, and transact, with modeled digital representations of the real world. […] But though Gelernter looked on the overall prospect of mirror worlds with enthusiasm, he worried as well. “I definitely feel ambivalent about mirror worlds. There are obvious risks of surveillance, but I think it poses deeper risks,” he said. His main concern was that mirror worlds would be steered by the geeky corporations who built them, as opposed to the public. “These risks should be confronted by society at large, not by techno-nerds,” he said. “I don’t trust them. They are not broad-minded and don’t know enough. They don’t know enough history, they don’t have enough. [Page 59-60]
Google’s researchers would acknowledge that working with a learning system of this size put them into uncharted territory. The steady improvement of its learning system flirted with the consequences postulated by scientist and philosopher Raymond Kurzweil, who speculated about an impending “singularity” that would come when a massive computer system evolves its way to intelligence. Larry Page was an enthusiastic follower of Kurzweil and a key supporter of Kurzweil-inspired Singularity University, an educational enterprise that anticipates a day when humans will pass the consciousness baton to our inorganic progeny. [Page would hire Kurzweil in 2012 ]What does it mean to say that Google “knows” something? […] “That’s a very deep question,” says Spector. “Humans, really, are big bags of mostly water walking around with a lot of tubes and some neurons and all. But we’re knowledgeable. So now look at the Google cluster computing system. It’s a set of many heuristics, so it knows ‘vehicle’ is a synonym for ‘automobile,’ and it knows that in French it’s voiture, and it knows it in German and every language. It knows these things. And it knows many more things that it’s learned from what people type.” […] Spector promised that Google would learn much, much more in coming years. “Do these things rise to the level of knowledge?” he asks rhetorically. “My ten-year-olds believe it. They think Google knows a lot. If you asked anyone in their grade school class, I think the kids would say yes.” What did Spector, a scientist, think? “I’m afraid that it’s not a question that is amenable to a scientific answer,” he says. “I do think, however, loosely speaking, Google is knowledgeable. The question is, will we build a general-purpose intelligence which just sits there, looks around, then develops all those skills unto itself, no matter what they are, whether it’s medical diagnosis or …” Spector pauses. “That’s a long way off,” he says. “That will probably not be done within my career at Google.” (Spector was fifty-five at the time of the conversation in early 2010.) “I think Larry would very much like to see that happen,” he adds. [Page 66-67]
As a final comment read the book (and more on my blog too)
The book is roughly organized around products (or projects). Since the book is about Google, it must start with the world of search and how Google was founded in Standford. How the two Googler founders were free-thinking Montessori idealists with an huge interest and background in technology stumbled on the idea of raking based on 'citations' and creating the world changing search -- google.com. It provides interesting stories about how advanced the Google search actually is and how it tried to learn from all the data it collects.
The second chapter takes Google from the start-up to a profitable company with Google Ads. The uncool product that became a cool product by changing the perspective from "boring ads" to an interesting technological problem. How to make ads useful? Introducing the auction, removing any middle-man and just do it based on data and algorithms was the trick Google used to ruin the existing markets of ads... or should I say, take it over. The Google Ads did lead to profit, which in turn lead to growth and...
To chapter 3 and an IPO. Google was funded based on VC money and they will expect to go public, so they can get their investment back. But Google didn't want to do that the traditional way... no... it had to be different. Nerdier, Googlier. They wanted to also disrupt the financial world, but that financial world didn't take Google too serious. It caused a lot of frustration, especially when Google stressed it's value of "Don't do Evil" which wasn't taken too serious by the (perhaps Evil) Wall Street firms. Eventually they succeeded, got lots of cash, so what do you do...
On to chapter 4 which starts with the invention of gmail and the need for more and more storage and computer power. This is the chapter where Google became really impressive as they changed the fiber and data centre world. Originally they ran in other company data centres, but eventually they figured they could do it better and build huge, secret data centres. Data centres need fast internet connections and power, so they actually bought most of the fiber connections, becoming one of the largest... cable companies.. I guess. They also made they move into power, but that is still undergoing. With the owning of the huge data centres, Google basically owned every aspect of their business and removed most dependencies. Now, they needed to show that they can do more than search/ads/mail, so...
Chapter 5 follows how Google tried different markets, first with Android and then with YouTube. As a company, being dependent on one market is risky, so expanding to others and increasing traffic and using your core assets (data centres) sounds logical. First into mobile making an operating systems (basically, together with Apple, killing Nokia), then a browser and becoming an active player in the 'second browser wars' and eventually buying YouTube to "go into video." These expanded Googles markets and made it less reliable on search only.
So, whats left? The rest of the world. Google began expanding in other countries from Chapter 6. The most interesting story is, of course, China where the corrupt government insists on stealing freedom from people by censoring the internet... a clear evil thing to do. So, do you play ball and try, from inside, to gradually open up the internet or do you refuse. Google went in... with a regret. The government considered it won and simply needed to push more and more rules otherwise it could simple remove the connectivity. Google shall listen. Google didn't like that and corrected its mistake after being hacked by the government. Painful. (The book doesn't share the wonderful details on how the government censorship simply makes google service look bad, missed opportunity, perhaps Steven needs to live in China for a while).
The US government is a lot better, right? Not really. It might be less corrupt, but it still is. Chapter 7 describes how some Googlers tried to help the Obama administration but were stifled by the bureaucracy. Also, competitors started lobbying more and more against Google, so they require Lobbyists too, which doesn't seem to be evil. The biggest legal problems came, of course, from the Google library project. Scanning all the world books is certainly evil, right?
Most of the book is exceptional positive about Google. The last chapter, Epilogue, suddenly changes its tone and shows how Google missed the boat on social networking, mostly because of how the company works. Also people became frustrated with Google, left, and started all kinds of wonderful companies such as Twitter, Foursquare, or left to join Facebook. Painful. Perhaps Google is now too big and traditional and will need to be replaced with a more modern company... facebook?
The book is structured (as you can read above) really well. It is well written and full with wonderful stories from Googlers. It is well research and was a pleasure to read. I'd recommend it to everyone who wants to have an insight into Google. It is probably better than some of the other Google-books. I'd rate if 4 stars, but not 5. Why? At times, I was disappointed with the technical inaccuracies in the book. Also, some points were left a bit too open. Last, it felt parts were missing, such as mentioning of the Google X projects or the Google Apps infrastructure. These seem like important new markets of Google, but it wasn't mentioned. So, an excellent book and definitively recommended, but not perfect.