In the mid or late 1980s, one of the American newsweeklies ran a cover story on the Internet. I was then living in Vienna and recall picking up a copy of the magazine from a newsstand that sold English-language periodicals and journals. I read the story more than once but could not quite understand it. It sounded more science fiction than science. How could what it described be possible, I kept wondering, which only brings home the fact, and one that we overlook, as to how new a phenomenon the Internet is. Today, we treat computers and what they do as if they had always been there.
I remember many long years ago in Sialkot, word spread that someone had brought a strange machine from America that recorded your voice and played it right back to you. Nobody could quite believe it. The machine, which like many others I also went to see, was a Grundig wire recorder that was half a storey high and needed a weightlifter to shift it from one table to the next.
It did record sound, scratchy though it was. The wire snapped often and had to be mended and realigned. It was like the eighth wonder of the world to some of us in that small, laid-back city. If a man who died in the 1940s was to return to the world and put in front of a giant plasma TV, handed a mobile phone and a Blackberry, seated before a computer and taken on a tour of the Internet and the amazing search engine Google, driven around in a car equipped with a navigational system, he would immediately be transported to where he had come from — out of absolute shock.
The story of the world’s largest, most used Internet search engine, Google, is quite amazing. So much has Google become a part of our lives that the word has gone into the language as a verb (Let us google that).
A 6,000-word profile of Google in the New Yorker this week is full of fascinating details. Google is not even quite ten yet, having been founded in 1998 by two youngsters by the names of Sergey Brin, then 24, and Larry Page, 25 at the time. What Google has created is an ingenious tool for searching the Internet that has evolved into something almost unimaginably far-reaching. The company’s mission is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
Making information “universally accessible”, though, is an ambitious goal that often clashes with those whose business is to own and distribute it, according to Ken Auletta, who wrote the New Yorker profile of this amazing enterprise.
Google also owns YouTube, the largest online video site (which contains everything under the sun, including mujras in Lahore’s exclusive homes by those with money to throw and an eye for pretty girls).
Google now faces a billion-dollar lawsuit for copyright infringement. Google wants to digitise all the world’s books, including those under copyright. “Despite Google’s assurances that it would protect authors and publishers, the company was unable to allay the fear that digitisation would eventually cheapen the value of the books; and publishers and writers expressed concern that Google would profit from book searches without sharing the ad revenue.
Newspapers were unhappy that Google was luring away readers and advertisers. And Microsoft, the world’s mightiest technology company, feared that Google was becoming too powerful — that it was designing Web-based software applications similar to Microsoft’s Office,” writes Auletta.
Google today is among America’s ten richest corporations, with a market value of just over $200 billion, ExxonMobil being No 1 at $500 billion. Google has amassed one of the world’s largest databases, a resource that has helped in altering its mission. “We are in the advertising business,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, told Auletta not long ago.
Google, he writes, which is based in Mountain View, California, now accounts for just over 60 percent of the world’s Internet searches, and its power comes from the data it collects from all those searches. “When a search is done on Google, a ‘cookie,’ or fingerprint, is created and stored in the browser of the computer being used. It records what you’re looking for and what you read or simply what you’re curious about. Your search query is stored by Google for eighteen months. Over time, Google might be tempted to extract more and more user data to better target ads. This year, Google’s ad revenues are expected to reach sixteen billion dollars, approaching the combined national advertising revenues of the four major broadcast networks.”
According to Auletta, in 1995, Brin and Page, graduate students at Stanford, figured out a way to scan and index the Internet. Earlier search engines had done this, but Brin and Page did it better. By 1998, they had incorporated Google, coming up with a company name that suggested the audacity of their ambition. (“Googol” is the math term for the figure 1 followed by a hundred zeros.) And they came up with an informal company motto to signal their benign intent: “Don’t be evil”.
In 1999, when Marissa Mayer was hired as the first female engineer and the nineteenth Google employee, the entire Google search index, she says, “was thirty million pages, and we did four hundred thousand searches my first day.”
Today, it reaches billions of pages. And, according to ComScore, Google does an estimated four hundred billion searches a year. In 2004, Google went public, selling its stock at an opening price of eighty-five dollars per share. Page and Brin, each of whom owned about fifteen per cent of the company, became billionaires; so did Schmidt, who owned about six per cent. Google’s stock has at times climbed over seven hundred dollars a share, and a great many Google employees have become fabulously wealthy.
Google News was invented by an Indian-born engineer named Krishna Bharat, who still works for the company. The company now employs about 16,000, receives more than a million résumés a year, and through much of 2007 hired about 150 people a week, half of them engineers. Brin and Page work without assistants. They love kite surfing, which involves using a power kite to pull a rider through the water on a small surfboard or a kiteboard.
Google CEO Schmidt told Auletta that because Google is “run by three computer scientists we’re going to make all the mistakes computer scientists running a company would make. But one of the mistakes we’re not going to make is the mistake that non-scientists make. We’re going to make mistakes based on facts and data and analysis.”
He paused. Then he said, “What kills a company is not competition but arrogance. We control our fate.”
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent