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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 November 2005, 07:44 GMT
Google searches for the future

By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Google logo with people walking past
Google has long since shaken off its tag of a baby internet firm

Does Google know what it's doing ?

Probably not. And therein may lie its genius.

I went round the "Googleplex" in Silicon Valley California four years after the company started.

It was unreconstructed 1960s California; bikes in the corridors, lava lamps everywhere, the famous ex-Grateful Dead chef cooking delights in the Google canteen, a grand piano in reception for the Google PhDs to tinkle on during breaks.

But most impressive of all was what I saw above the reception desk: a live selection of searches being requested at that moment all over the world.

I read out a few..and then turned to my Google escort.

"No one in history has ever been able to do this before," I said, overwhelmed by it. "We are looking into the mind of the world."

Old hat already?

But like all great innovations, we take things like the internet for granted as soon as we get it.

While I was there I talked to the founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

This was before they had hired a chief executive officer - Eric Schmidt - and were still running the firm themselves, long before last year's extraordinary share sale that made them multi-billionaires. Even in 2002 the company was generating enough money from ads to wipe its face.

But the founding duo was not at all clear about what the business plan actually was. And perhaps they still do not really know.

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt
Google's founders have brought in outside help to ponder its future

Even so, this has been the most extraordinary year of activity for Google.

The company is mapping your desktop, managing your pictures with Picasa, mapping the earth with Google Earth, offering search over mobile phones.

It is going local by rolling country-specific search engines, it is edging into telecoms by apparently trying to build a fibre optic network, starting up an agency to place print ads like those on its web pages, launching Google Talk for instant messaging and Gmail for electronic mail.

More to come

But it does not stop there, and Google wants to make the contents of books (not just their titles) searchable to everyone (maybe eventually all the books in the world), and it even wants to make TV programmes searchable.

In August 2005, one year after the company's first share flotation, Google raised another $4billion to add to its existing $3billion cash pile, making it the fastest growing company ever seen.

It is taking a million square feet of NASA property in Silicon Valley for a new Googleplex to create space for its army of PhDs who spend their time dreaming up ways of making search better.

It is taking floors for a huge bank of computer servers to do something with in New York.

Smart farm

Its main asset is the number of PhDs it has working for it, ceaselessly trying to figure out how to extend the principle of search into everything, unbounded by time, space and (soon) language barriers.

The company mainly hires people just a year or two out of university, for fear that experience in the conventional business world will taint their freshness of mind. Google googles the Internet for its own purposes, ceaselessly.

It tried to recruit a South African schoolboy I know because it was so impressed with his web page. (He turned them down in favour of going to university, probably a mistake).

Google's business plan seems to be a simple one: its people start things, and then work out how to make money out of them. This is an internet land grab of extraordinary dimensions.

Google logo
Google wants its brand name to cover a whole host of services

No wonder Microsoft is worried; no wonder Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, is worried.

The one feature that Google has been wary of adding to its services until this month is personal search, which remembers your preferences and selects from what it thinks you will want to see.

It was quietly taken out of the labs and launched in beta form the other day and whatever the small print promises, it takes this self-proclaimed "good" company into potentially dangerous Big Brother territory.

But by remembering your own preferences rather than the most popular or referred-to sites, it is turning the internet into a genuinely personal resource.

A mighty move.

Changing focus

The Google tracker and author John Battelle says that Google's ultimate ambition (after it has tested the waters with its current incoherent foray into so many do-able things) is to change its overt mission statement.

At present, it professes "to organise the world's information and make it accessible".

The plan is to bring in the even more grandiose aim "to become the marketplace for all global commerce". And of course it may not be Google.

Google is only as good as its algorithms (though its current land grab may be an attempt to disguise that fact).

Build a better search engine than Google, and the Internet will beat a path to your door.

At the Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley, California, Paul Saffo thinks the future is Yahoo, not Google because Yahoo has identified entertainment as the heart of its business plan.

It plans to link every other sort of internet exploration to the entertainment imperative.

Out there in cyberspace, something very important is happening to all our lives. That's what Google knows, even if it doesn't know where it's going.

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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