The year is 2014. Newspapers, radio and television as it was known are dead. People receive a "custom content package using his choices, his consumption habits, his interests, his demographic, his social network".
A network of computers puts together news by "stripping sentences and facts" from "all media sources and recombining them." The New York Times and other media brands are shrunken dwarves. Many have fled the net. Two firms control all —- Microsoft and Googlezon (a merger of Amazon and Google).
This is the world of EPIC 2014, a fake documentary made by two US journalists, that is causing heartburn in the mainstream media. Trend watchers argue that the shift from "mass media to personal media" is the future.
And the company at the forefront of the shift is Google. As Wired magazine headlined in December: "Who’s afraid of Google? Everyone." Google is the new byte-eyed baby of infotech. Its share prices have gone from $85 in 2004 to $450 today. This year’s forecast: $600. Anything it does today is dissected for signs of genius. Google puts fear in the likes of Bill Gates and APJ Abdul Kalam.
Two new books try to explain the phenomenon. David Vise’s The Google Story is the business biography: an extremely detailed account of the company and its founders, replete with eureka moments and pothole stumbles. John Batelle’s more concise The Search is more like an essay on the importance and implications of search to the internet and society itself.
Vise’s is easily the superior account of documenting how two Stanford University PhD students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, created a multi-billion dollar firm from Page’s doctor al research topic in less than a decade.
In the mid-1990s, Page was studying links between sites on the nascent internet. He developed BackRub to track backward and forward links to a website. The real quantum leap came with PageRank. This programme-graded websites by counting the number of links they had —- in the way academic peer review is based on numbers of citations. It put PageRank light-years ahead of the random ways of the early search engines like Altavista.
Today the PageRank algorithm is the stuff of tech legend. When Page and Brin became entrepreneurs, they adopted the name Google, a genuine misspelling of the googol numeral, and were adopted in turn by a couple of venture capitalists.
After this, the story more or less writes itself. It developed a unique server system made up of 170,000 off-the-shelf PCs. Google thrived when the tech bubble popped.
Murkier was Google’s adoption —- Batelle pretty much calls it theft -- of GoTo.com’s business model in which advertisers paid a few cents every time a Google user clicked on an ad accompanying the search results. But Google tweaked it into a profit-spinner. Neither book is good on the firm’s finances —- reflecting the firm’s famous reticence about its revenue sources —- but Batelle at least tries.
It is also clear that Google has a remarkable culture of innovation, allowing it to metamorphose even mundane acts into something special. Note its use of an online auction system when it issued its first public shares. But neither author gives many clues about this culture other than to vaguely say it’s "bottomsup."
Not everyone is impressed. Vise quotes one web developer saying, "At Google it’s tiring to get anything done. It’s chaos. No one knows where the meeting room is. Then the key people are 45 minutes late. Then people are going in and out." Ultimately, what has driven Google has been the staggering expansion of the internet in terms of data and utility.
With seemingly infinite information at your fingertips, the real problem is finding what you need. It may have been about news, but now it’s about shopping, entertaining, social interaction and pretty much everything. Which is why Google rules. In the land of the data-blinded, search is king.
One has only to think about all the things one does that entail lining up and choosing from options and boggle at the potential of search. More important, the act of search today leaves an electronic signature in its path giving clues to the nature of the searcher and his wants. As Batelle writes, Google knows what our society wants.
"It is the Database of Intentions." As Google has expanded, so have the concerns about the social consequences of search. Some are trivial like security fears about Google Earth. The more serious ones lie in the area of privacy. Remember the short-lived storm that followed the belief that Google would be reading the emails of Gmail users? Both books have ex amples of women who used Google to find out that their blind date was a felon. Then there’s click fraud. Or how small firms can lose their cus tomers because Google’s software downgrades them on the ranking index.
The future may not be Google. Yahoo is a tough rival and if products like IBM’s Webfountain graduate to personal computers then the home page of Page and Brin may eventu ally disappear into a server archive. But the future will almost definitely have an ever-expanding and revolution-creating place for search.