Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book Review: Planet Google by Randall Stross

This 2008 book by NYT columnist and San Jose State U professor Randall Stross is nicely complementary to Ken Auletta’s more recent book, reviewed elsewhere in this blog. The author concentrates on three things: (1) Google as technology powerhouse, (2) the competitive situation between Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, and (3) Google’s forays into books, news, maps, email, videos, and question-answering, not all of which have worked out well.

Page and Brin decided early on that search would be completely algorithmic - no editors, no taxonomies, no pollution from ads. This distinguished them from Yahoo, whose early attempts to organize the Web quickly ran out of steam. Having suffered from hardware deprivation at Stanford, they decided (like Scarlett O’Hara) that they would never be hungry again, and took the highly unusual step of building their own machines. It’s often overlooked that Google couldn’t possibly scale their data centers and give away cycles and storage to the degree that they do if they bought big ticket boxes from Sun and IBM.

Moving to the competitive situation, it’s pretty clear that Google didn’t have much to fear from either Yahoo or Microsoft in the first half of this decade. Yahoo made the mistake of adopting Google as their search engine, giving their rival more exposure and more data to play with. (Ironically, it was Yahoo’s cofounder, David Filo, who discouraged Page and Brin from licensing their technology to others initially and building their own Web site.) Microsoft lollygagged around, first ignoring search (stupid) and then paying people to use their search engine in 2006 (really stupid). Bing post-dates the book, of course.

Finally, Stross does a good job of documenting Google’s somewhat mixed attempts to get beyond textual Web search and refute Steve Ballmer’s jibe about being a one-trick pony. Their book-scanning project is curious in many ways. It’s hardly a moneymaking opportunity for them, yet they were too impatient to try and get the publishers on board, thereby sparking lawsuits. Their video portal was an outright failure, leading to the expensive YouTube purchase and more legal woes. Google Answers was a loser and has been far outstripped by Yahoo Answers. Google News remains controversial to this day, vide Rupert Murdoch's recent approach to Microsoft.

Gmail and Google Maps, however, have done better, and Google Docs must be giving Microsoft pause. Google is a successful company by any standards, well ahead of their rivals on basic search, and Stross gives them their due. But he also notes their reluctance to embrace Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 concepts, e.g., social media and the Semantic Web. I'm not a great fan of the latter, but the relative failure of Orkut and the rise of Facebook must be giving Google pause. Whatever the future holds for Google, it won’t be dull, and we’ll all have a ringside seat.