on July 16, 2011
In the late 90's a young Larry Page, enrolled at Stanford in Computer Science, needed a subject for his Phd dissertation. His was a razor sharp engineering mind, but he was in need of something big, something worthy of his geek brain. They say technology lies on the edge of complexity, and thus, in those days, the most complex thing was the Internet, just a few years from launching into the mainstream. The web was growing at an amazing rate, truly a worth challenge for Page. That Stanford project became Google (not Googol), and today, the web is sprawling more than it ever has, making a Search engine, on the face of it, worth more than it ever was. Amidst infinite complexity, Google's algorithm has incredible value precisely because the world, and the web, is incredibly complex.
The story of Google turns out to be a nice little summary of the last 15 or so years of Computing, picking up right about the time our last gen Silicon Valley Royals (those being Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) buried the hatchet (that story, by the way, is depicted nicely in the great "Pirates of Silicon Valley" TV Movie by Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall, respectively).
So why read a book about Google anyway? Well the truth is, most people won't. Most people will find this stuff incredibly dry. Everyone wants a Google business card, but few of us actually want to actually work at Google and stay up for 14 hours discussing search algorithms, Gmail Spambots and Google Streetview. Engineers, however, love this stuff. The simple act of saying, "This is hard, it's never been done before, it's probably impossible" is the equivalent of telling Schwarzenegger in the late 70's that he couldn't pick up a huge boulder. He's going to pick that rock up or die trying.
The other thing Engineers like is money. It turns out that if you go back to Apple in the 80's, Microsoft in the 90's, and Google in the 2000's (and now Facebook in the 2010's), Engineers go wherever the IPO tells them to go. And thus we find ourselves in an interesting position: Google has lost some of its smartest people, and Facebook is the coolest kid on the block. Despite all the bad press, Mark Zuckerberg (who famously had more Facebook plaintiffs than Friends) is the most popular kid on Google Plus (Google's Facebook wannabe).
But before we get into that, let's take a step back and try to understand what really drives this company: Google was never about making money. In fact, the founders taunted the business guys, mostly because they weren't smart enough to be Engineers. To be an MBA with no Engineering experience at Google is to be, in a way, a second class citizen. And yet Google gets richer and richer, almost as if to say, "We can do this stuff without even trying. What do we need you for?"
So how does Google make money? By saving the logs of everything everybody on the Internet searches for, they can track incredibly detailed patterns of behaviour (like the way our brains have muscle memory and habits). If Google understands what you want, maybe Google can anticipate what you're looking for. And thus, perhaps they could actually give you an ad that you didn't hate. This is the point. You're not supposed to hate Google Ads. You're supposed to like them. And for that, Advertisers pay big money. Ideally, it's a win-win. If an advertiser starts talking to you about something you want, they're not annoying; they're actually useful.
Here's where it gets really interesting: you may have heard that Google's mission is to organize the world's information. As such, it's inextricably tied to the growth of the Web. And thus, Google will do anything that promotes Web usage. This is why almost all Google services are free.
Who could argue with this great business model? You take something that people are looking for, and give it to them for free. They never pay anything (like TV commercials), and we get big businesses to foot the bill. But Google does have its critics, namely Privacy advocates. Google often responds to criticism by calling upon the Invisible hand of the market: "If we do something wrong, people will tell us, and they'll stop using our stuff, and thus, the product will fail." It's the kind of undeniable and irrefutable logic that almost suggests the Governments step away from all consumer protection. There's just one problem: a similar defence could be used for Drug Dealers. After all, the addicts keep coming back, they obviously like the product right? (What's the emoticon for sarcasm again?)
And what's Google's drug in this analogy? Free (as in Beer). By getting the users hooked on free, they can pull in the advertisers. And it turns out, as long as you have lots of white space (Google's most preferred design language. Ahem.) you can put ads there. And if you suggest Google is exploiting people, they will respond that they are merely anticipating what their users are looking for and suggesting solutions. We users should be so lucky.
Don't think of Google as a Search Engine, or a business; think of Google as a Brain. And where is that brain? Strewn around the world in Google's top secret Data Centres of course, where it holds indexes of everything on the Web, with its own fibers engineered to bring you the fastest results it possibly can. Like a man made Cerebral cortex connected to the worlds most efficient and genetically perfect spinal cord. Zero Downtime, Unlimited Memory and Super-Speed.
You see, human brains are great, but they have this little problem of wearing down and expiring every 80 or so years.
So if you're going to build a mechianical brain that can live forever, first you have to teach it stuff (Indexing the world's Information), and you have to give it a great memory (aforementioned Data Centers). As the brain becomes more intelligent, soon you'll want it to learn to speak (Google Translate) and develop feelings and social skills, which brings us back to Google+, Google's "Facebook-killer".
So Social turns out to be the next phase in building a brain. Ironically, such technology only helps Google anticipate the users' wants and needs, feeding them better ads. Your friends know you.. they know what you like. That's why Apple integrated something called Ping into iTunes.. they figured your friends knew what kind of music you like better than a computer algorithm (previously known as iTunes Genius).
And Mark Zuckerberg figures your friends who actually know you know what kind of cola you drink, what kind of shoes you like, better than some computer. Your friends have actual brains. They're humans. As Business Guru Tom Peters famously said, the soft stuff is the hard stuff.
The next level of search will come full circle, riding on the back of actual humans who know you. After all the fiber-optic cables have been laid and multi-million dollar data centres have been built, Zuckerberg, Brin and Page are the guys at the party, asking your friends what you want for your birthday, then handing you a brightly coloured package. As you tear off the wrapping paper, you can't believe it: "Wow! This is perfect! How did you know I was looking for a new Tennis Racquet? I love it!"
I guess some questions are better left unanswered. ;)
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