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Last Updated: Friday, 26 August 2005, 13:38 GMT 14:38 UK
Talkin' about a revolution?
Google watching has replaced Microsoft watching as a popular tech-lover's pastime, says technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Screengrab of Google Talk
Google watching is fast replacing Microsoft watching
Google knows I am writing about them this week.

They know that I have been searching their index for information on "Google talk" and "Google sidebar" and "Google privacy policy", so they could probably tell that I am interested in their new tools and how they furnish them with even more personal data on even more people.

Of course nobody at Google is actually sitting there trawling through the search logs for my computer's IP address and then linking that address to frequent logons to "billthom@gmail.com".

Nobody has spotted that the same IP address was used to connect to the Google Talk service a couple of times on the day of its launch, using that same Gmail account.

If anything, their data centre will have noticed a correlation between people searching for "Google talk" and Gmail users signing up, but that is hardly surprising.

So saying that "Google knows" anything about me is really just the sort of shoddy journalistic shorthand that gets readers worried about what they are up to even though there is no evidence they have done anything untoward.

Regulation, regulation?

Even if Google did bother tracking me, I do not care how much they know about what I am searching for.

Users can always switch to another search engine or another instant messaging service, and there are tools that will delete Google's cookies or anonymise search requests for those who are really worried.

I am far more concerned about the way their index is maintained and the quality of the search results they supply to those who choose to use it.

More and more people are coming to rely on the information they get back from Google search, and those people are far less likely to make the effort to search in other places if they are using a range of Google-provided desktop utilities that all make it easy for them to tap into the Google index.

In 2003, I argued that it was time for search engines to be regulated in the same way as other public utilities, so that we could be confident that results were not being skewed for commercial reasons, and so that any restrictions on content were lawful and not the result of corporate censorship.

Bill Thompson
We should not see the launch of Talk, or the Sidebar desktop tool, as a direct challenge to Microsoft
Bill Thompson

Now that Google is a public company, and one that is extending its areas of activity far beyond simple search, this need is even greater.

We should never forget that Google's relation to search is the same as ITV's relation to television programmes; the shows, however good or bad they are, are a way to provide an audience for advertisers or sponsors.

While many of the people working in commercial TV care deeply about the programmes they make, at a senior level the only concern is how many people of what type are watching, because that determines the rate charged for ads.

No doubt the Google engineers who manage the server farm and tune the index care deeply about search and the careful application of the complex algorithms they have devised, but in the end the business only worries about how search can drive advertising revenue.

Though Google Talk currently comes without ads we can be sure they will be there soon - perhaps even contextualised to fit the subject of your conversation just like the ads in Gmail messages.

Whatever privacy or commercial concerns Google Talk may raise, it is an important development in the instant messaging world because it is built on top of xmpp, an open standard for message exchange developed from the popular and open source Jabber service.

This means that any Jabber client can use it - I was able to talk to my friend Simon on his Windows PC using iChat on my PowerBook.

Log jam

This will break the logjam on messaging interconnectivity that has caused such problems over the years, largely as a result of AOL's unwillingness to let anyone else interoperate with AOL Instant Messenger.

It can only be a matter of weeks before Microsoft adds xmpp/Jabber support to MSN, hoping to keep its user base away from experimenting with Google's chat client, and AOL and Yahoo will surely follow suit before the end of the year.

In fact the Google Chat client is so basic and unadventurous that we cannot rule out the possibility that they released it solely in order to break the barriers between the different IM services, and that they will not bother releasing a fully featured version in the future, concentrating instead on the voice over the internet service that they see as being the real money-maker.

But we should not see the launch of Talk, or the Sidebar desktop tool, as a direct challenge to Microsoft.

It is not the same as the situation 10 years ago when the Netscape browser was launched with a built-in e-mail client and the promise of web-based word processors and other applications.

Netscape in its hubristic way even proposed that the browser would replace the operating system on "thin client" computers, breaking Microsoft's dominance on the desktop.

It did not happen, partly because the network was not fast enough and the processors were not powerful enough.

But Google's strategists have enough sense to realise that they do not need to challenge Microsoft in its core areas of operating systems and applications.

Why try to replace Windows when you can offer people a branded desktop search tool that does a better job than the built-in search?

Why write your own version of Word when you are already better at search than MSN and can force Microsoft to spend billions of dollars just trying to catch up?

Of course, most of this is speculation, because Google does not talk about unannounced products. In this it is no more secretive than Apple or indeed Microsoft, but perhaps we want to know more about Google because it knows so much about us.

For the moment, I will keep my own interactions with the Googleplex to a minimum, support the campaign for better data protection laws in the US, and watch with interest as new products and services emerge from the Google labs.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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