The Two Sides of Google

The Thinker by Rodin

Google is one of these amazing companies that demonstrates how uninspiring and mediocre most businesses in the Information Technology (IT) field actually are. Unlike Microsoft, which claims to be innovative but largely is not, Google can truly claim the mantle. Google is a company with the power to inspire awe. Its search engine continues to be the cream of the crop. Yahoo and MSN will keep trying to best Google, but they will likely continue to play follow the leader. Yahoo Maps, for example, just recently released its Beta mapping application, which roughly compares with Google Maps. Google Maps, of course, has been using the magic of AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript and XML) for over a year to take map usability to a completely new level.

For software engineers like me, the speed with which Google churns out amazing new technologies takes my breath away. Its billions of dollars in ready capital certainly explains part of its success. With its passion for excellence and fearlessness taking big chances, Google simply soars high above the rest of the IT crowd. Mostly it hits the bullseye. Google Earth is just the most recent example of a technology that blew my socks off. It is a killer application, as every bit as revolutionary as the first web browser. We were still being wowed with Google Maps ease of use when Google threw us the Google Earth bombshell.

One of the more recent services introduced by Google is Google Video. It provides a new way to find and share video files. Google acts as the Internet’s ubiquitous high speed and fault tolerant video server. Given its enormous infrastructure, hosting and serving these large bandwidth intensive videos must not be much of a problem. The service even lets you know its most popular videos. Yet this is just one of a number of flashy services that Google provides, most at no cost. Let Google host your blog on Blogger. Centralize your email on the network with GMail. Find the lowest price online with Froogle. Search your computer as you would the Internet with Google Desktop Search. (It just happens to be a feature of the Google Desktop, a clever new application, which looks like a first attempt to break up Microsoft’s desktop monopoly.) Google even has pretensions in the Instant Messaging arena with its Talk client. Clearly, their ambition knows few bounds. While it occasionally bites off more than it is ready to chew (GMail being an obvious example) Google’s numbers of home runs outside the ballpark would make even Babe Ruth jealous.

Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems was I believe the first to promote the idea in the 1990s that “the network is the computer”. While he was ridiculed at the time, Google has shown us that the network can be the computer. With an infrastructure like Google’s, what seemed impossible can unexpectedly become reality. While Microsoft spins its wheels trying to make its Windows product ever niftier, Google shows us that it is what you can do with a computer that makes it meaningful. Indeed, Google makes a compelling case that its services and infrastructure is the ubiquitous application layer of the future, if not the here and now. I am creating this entry using Microsoft Word, but I have already checked a half dozen facts online using Google’s search engine. I can use any word processor to create this entry. I cannot go just anywhere online to find out the information I need this rapidly. Google demonstrates it is not how pretty your screwdriver is that matters, but how well it helps you turn the screw. Therefore, we get its low-tech web pages, always with the pure white background, the simple text and its generous use of white space. It appears low tech but it is simple enough for a student in grade school to use effectively.

So I have plenty of cheers for Google today. I am especially glad it gave the U.S. Justice Department a Bronx cheer when the department recently requested a week’s worth of its web searches. The Justice Department wants the information to discover how the web is being used by pedophiles and those interested in child pornography. Unlike Yahoo and MSN, Google wisely said no. It valued the trust it has earned with its customers too much to let the Justice Department mine its information. Let us hope it continues to do so. Apparently, Google records the Internet Protocol (IP) address of every search query. Let us hope that if push comes to shove Google simply stops recording the IP addresses of all our search queries. For an administration already deeply in Big Brother land with its warrantless electronic eavesdropping, this is simply an opening salvo by the government to get its hands on our private business. If Yahoo and MSN care that little about my privacy, I will not be giving them my business.

In making a stand in America though, Google apparently is quite willing to compromise its principles to win business overseas. For also in the news this week were stories that Google will allow the Chinese government to censor its search engine content. Maybe I was naïve, but I really thought Google got it. However, apparently they will compromise their principles if it improves their shareholders’ bottom line. Perhaps as a result, Google shares went up 3.4 percent with the announcement.

Google must not understand its own unique power at this point in history. Many of us talk about the importance of human freedom, but few are in a position to do much to expand it. Google can. It is the 900-pound gorilla in the information search business. Rather than kowtow to China’s paranoid rulers it should have said no thanks. Yes, perhaps that might have kept Google out of the important Chinese market. Yet a powerful and uncensored internet search engine is a great beacon for those who believe in the power of ideas. The Google business plan surely was premised on its importance. Google is a trusted broker for finding uncensored information. It expands personal freedom and spreads enlightenment. Its reputation is at stake. Which is why Google should rethink doing business with China. Right now, its search engine is the largest force for the liberation of the human mind in the 21st century. Google can be both profitable and spread human enlightenment at the same time. It should tell China it does not need its business unless it guarantees that its citizens have the unfettered access to its search engine.

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