Thursday, July 07, 2011

Google, a benign evil?

In one of G K Chesterton stories the hero observes that nothing is as frightening as a labyrinth without a centre. Google might be one such labyrinth: a cloud computing major, owner of an insanely successful operating system called Android, owner of YouTube, even producer of a car that drives itself. All of this, apart from its lucrative search engine exoskeleton. How can a decade-old company be branching out like a banyan tree on crack? A possible answer is the Montessori schooling of Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, according to Steve Levy in his new book In The Plex: “To ask their own questions, do their own things. Do something because it makes sense, not because some authority told you.”

This has been the guiding light of this unobtrusive duo right from its typical-Silicon-Valley garage-start-up days to its current “800-pound gorilla” status. This journey has been charted pretty well in Mr Levy’s conventional but fairly elegant book. Mr Levy, a technology reporter, almost unlocks the Google “labyrinth”. He meets almost every employee who is someone at Google and accumulates a massive corpus of interviews. The first two chapters on how Google came up with the AdWords and AdSense concepts and the course-changing decision to induct Eric Schmidt as CEO amply show how Mr Levy knows every cobble of Google’s journey.

As it gained traction with web users, Google started to look beyond the search business. It locked horns with Microsoft and Apple. So enraged was Apple CEO Steve Jobs with Google’s smartphone operating system (Android) that he once quipped “we did not enter the search business, why is Google entering the smartphone business”. It’s apparent that Mr Jobs did not have a Montessori background. Mr Brin and Mr Page, who think as one, are like two unhinged horses together in harness. They are always on the lookout for new paths and don’t baulk at exploring them.

The first five (out of eight) chapters are a build-up to the following chapters that take the reader on a TGV ride. Google’s kerfuffle with China over privacy issues has been the search engine’s major lightning rod in 2010. As it is, Google was neck-deep in problems in the world’s largest Internet market over censorship issues, cultural issues and massive competition from local search engine major Baidu. However, Google was still trying to sail through these choppy waters when the Chinese government allegedly hacked the Gmail accounts of Chinese activists.

Google, whose motive is “Don’t Be Evil”, couldn’t take this arm-twisting anymore and started locking horns with the government only to make an unceremonious exit. Google has had other embarrassments too, like the public spat with publishers and authors over the digitisation of every book that has been ever produced. Unlike China, Google cannot claim to be a victim here. As Mr Levy tells his readers, “Google was making a copy of every book – without permission – to build a library of its own, without paying publishers and authors for the privilege.” However altruistic Google may sound in its aim of making books available to one and all with there being no geographical boundaries, it was actually being a literary shark that is into some serious literary land grabbing. Here’s an instant where that Chesteron hero should get “frightened”.

While Mr Levy’s journalism in the book is stellar, he does miss (overlook really) a couple of issues. He doesn’t even hint at the Big Brother aspect of Google Earth, which drew some serious ire in Europe. Another issue is Google’s inherent bias towards engineers and blithe ignorance for non-engineers. Mr Levy does touch on that but never cares to burrow enough. A classic example is Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and former vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. In a recent BusinessWeek article, Roger McNamee, a friend of Ms Sandberg’s, was quoted as following: “Google has done so many things right, but the thing they screwed up more than anything was missing the import of people from nonengineering backgrounds and failing to appreciate the value such people can bring. As a consequence, a lot of people like Sheryl (Sandberg) were not given an opportunity to shine to their true level. For all intents and purposes, Google chased Sheryl away.” There might not be a grain of truth in these allegations but Mr Levy, with his unhindered access to Google, could have investigated further.

The book’s greatest strength is in its closing chapter (“Chasing Taillights”). The chapter enumerates so many sour grapes that it could pass for a massive vineyard. With Facebook’s meteoric ascent, Google has every reason to worry. Google Buzz, the company’s feeble attempt at social networking, turned into a huge PR disaster when users’ email contacts were made public. Foursquare’s co-founder Dennis Crowley had a similar prototype that Google bought but never cared enough to build into something shape shifting, which Foursquare eventually turned out to be. Google has a social networking site called Orkut, which is Facebook before Facebook, but lack of enough patronisation saw it limiting itself to Brazil and India.

Google has a couple of search engine worries as well: Microsoft’s Bing is trying to close in on Google and Yandex, a Russian search engine, just raised $1.5 billion through an IPO. This “labyrinth” better find its centre, soon.

Steven Levy
Simon & Schuster
424 pages; Rs 961


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