Google Birthday 15.0: mapping the world and its breakfast
Whether we like it or not, the tech giant influences every aspect of our online lives – and it can sell ads that prove it
Sweet success: Google’s text-based ads, which began in 2000, now generate more money than all US newspaper and magazine advertising combined. Photograph: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
Fifteen years after Larry Page and Sergey Brin put their Stanford-moulded brains together and decided to organise all the world’s information – easy-peasy – Google has become a part of our lives. Their company has become such a colossus that it’s hard to keep track of what it does. But if anyone could have predicted what Google would become, it’s those two men who believed anything was possible.
Now, with 30,000 employees, of whom a sizeable number work in Dublin, and interests in everything from green energy to what you had for breakfast, Google is everywhere, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-forecasting. And it’s still doing what it does best: selling ads.
Although Page and Brin lack the name recognition of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Google’s management has huge brain power, although there is just one woman in its top management tier: Susan Wojcicki, who is vice-president of ads and commerce.
It’s also a company of intellectuals such as its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. This year he wrote The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business with Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas and former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.
Occasionally, Google honchos such as Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering, emit a mad-scientist demeanour. Kurzweil is the author of the controversial book The Singularity Is Near. He has written five other books, but Singularity is the most interesting, obsessed with artificial intelligence and nanobots, predicting a future in which humans could become immortal through technology, and in which machines could become increasingly human even if they are not burdened with biology.
There’s a certain amount of Kool Aid-drinking among the lower-level Google employees, too. The Googleplex, the company’s headquarters at Mountain View in California, has brightly coloured bikes for employees to use. Touches like those made the Google workplace something of a fascination for the media – and anyone else whose office didn’t have beanbags or pool tables.
Tales of free food, top-notch coffee machines, chill-out zones and cultish teambuilding exercises enamoured the company to prospective employees who bought into Google’s Don’t Be Evil founding motto. Having a social life and leisure space in your office means you’re likely to stay there longer – but, hey, free smoothies!
Google’s dominance is most visible in its being the initial point of access for most internet users – that empty white box into which you type everything from airline fares to a city you’d like to visit, or the name of someone you met in a bar the previous night, to medical symptoms or ways to build a nail bomb.
But the company’s diversification and acquisitions have been relentless, even if some, such as Google Wave and Google Buzz, have failed.
Email with Gmail, online storage with Drive, instant communication with Hangouts. Google has excelled in these spaces. It has developed a hugely successful operating system, Android, and a browser, Chrome. Getting a grip on mobile, it has produced Nexus phones and last year bought Motorola.