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

Sat, Sep 7, 2013, 01:00

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.

The company’s next step is to become a broadband provider: it is building an infrastructure, Google Fiber, in the US, first in Kansas City and next in Austin. Android phones have become the devices of choice for tech-savvy consumers, who prefer their more open development model to Apple’s rigid App Store.

But ads are where the fast money is. Google’s text-based ads, which began in 2000, now generate more money than all US newspaper and magazine advertising combined. By scanning your email and identifying your searches, Google has been able to target ads more effectively than ever.

Mapping the world was Google’s next project, becoming a 21st-century cartographer thanks to a small start-up called Keyhole, which had developed a piece of software that allowed you to view Earth in 3D. This type of satellite imagery captivated millions, as the users of what became Google Earth trawled the planet, zooming in on the roofs of their houses, building galleries of weird and wonderful spots, and then going right down to eye level with Street View.

Google Analytics allowed people with websites and blogs to better understand who was landing on their page.

The acquisition of YouTube stretched Google’s dominance even further in 2006. It bought the online video company, which has transformed personal broadcasting, for $1.65 billion in stock.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Google is its pet projects offline. Aside from its six gigantic data centres in the US and two in Europe – three more are on the way in Asia – its real-world impact is increasing. In 2010 it invested about €30 million in wind energy, specifically wind farms in North Dakota.

Driverless cars are another hobby. Last March they became legal in Nevada. A month later Florida authorised their testing. California legalised them last September.

So far these vehicles are Toyotas, but reports surfaced last month that Google may be building its own car. That’s the way Google tends to do things with hardware: it tests out market leaders, then builds its own, or just buys them.

And there’s the fluffy, friendly, helpful Google. Google.org provides solutions to global challenges with technology: there’s Google Giving, Google Ideas, Google in Education, Google Green. That’s aside from other philanthropy and the private philanthropic funds of its management.

Google creates startup hubs for new ventures, gives money to cultural institutions, gets the wallet out for gay marriage.

But those nasty privacy issues are still there, eroding the Don’t Be Evil philosophy. Users have been complicit in handing over their privacy, snatching free email services in exchange for personal information.

The hullabaloo about the US National Security Agency’s Prism electronic-surveillance programme won’t go away. Google’s lawyers are on record as saying, “All users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing.”

So deal with it. Google knows you, and its knowledge is only going to increase.

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