What Lurks in Its Soul?

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By David A. Vise
Sunday, November 13, 2005

The soul of the Google machine is a passion for disruptive innovation.

Powered by brilliant engineers, mathematicians and technological visionaries, Google ferociously pushes the limits of everything it undertakes. The company's DNA emanates from its youthful founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who operate with "a healthy disregard for the impossible," as Page likes to say. Their goal: to organize all of the world's information and make it universally accessible, whatever the consequences.

Google's colorful childlike logo, its whimsical appeal and its lightning-fast search results have made it the darling of information-hungry Internet users. Google has accomplished something rare in the hard-charging, mouse-eat-mouse environment that defines the high-tech world -- it has made itself charming. We like Google. We giggle at the "Google doodles," the playful decorations on its logo that appear on holidays or other special occasions. We eagerly sample the new online toys that Google rolls out every few months.

But these friendly features belie Google's disdain for the status quo and its voracious appetite for aggressively pursuing initiatives to bring about radical change. Google is testing the boundaries in so many ways, and so purposefully, it's likely to wind up at the center of a variety of legal battles with landmark significance.

Consider the wide-ranging implications of the activities now underway at the Googleplex, the company's campuslike headquarters in California's Silicon Valley. Google is compiling a genetic and biological database using the vast power of its search engines; scanning millions of books without traditional regard for copyright laws; tracing online searches to individual Internet users and storing them indefinitely; demanding cell phone numbers in exchange for free e-mail accounts (known as Gmail) as it begins to build the first global cell phone directory; saving Gmails forever on its own servers, making them a tempting target for law enforcement abuse; inserting ads for the first time in e-mails; making hundreds of thousands of cheap personal computers to serve as cogs in powerful global networks.

Google has also created a new kind of work environment. It serves three free meals a day to its employees (known as Googlers) so that they can remain on-site and spend more time working. It provides them with free on-site medical and dental care and haircuts, as well as washers and dryers. It charters buses with wireless Web access between San Francisco and Silicon Valley so that employees can toil en route to the office. To encourage innovation, it gives employees one day a week -- known as 20 percent time -- to work on anything that interests them.

To eliminate the distinction between work and play -- and keep the Googlers happily at the Googleplex -- they have volleyball, foosball, puzzles, games, rollerblading, colorful kitchens stocked with free drinks and snacks, bowls of M&Ms, lava lamps, vibrating massage chairs and a culture encouraging Googlers to bring their dogs to work. (No cats allowed.) The perks also include an on-site masseuse, and extravagant touch-pad-controlled toilets with six levels of heat for the seat and automated washing, drying and flushing without the need for toilet paper.

Meanwhile, the Googlers spend countless hours tweaking Google's hardware and software to reliably deliver search results in a fraction of a second. Few Google users realize, however, that every search ends up as a part of Google's huge database, where the company collects data on you, based on the searches you conduct and the Web sites you visit through Google. The company maintains that it does this to serve you better, and deliver ads and search results more closely targeted to your interests. But the fact remains: Google knows a lot more about you than you know about Google.

If these were the actions of some obscure company, maybe none of this would matter much. But these are the practices of an enterprise whose search engine is so ubiquitous it has become synonymous with the Internet itself for millions of computer users. And if the Google Guys have their way, their presence will only grow. Brin and Page see Google (its motto: "Don't Be Evil") as a populist force for good that empowers individuals to find information fast about anything and everything.

Part of Google's success has to do with the network of more than 100,000 cheap personal computers it has built and deployed in its own data centers around the world. Google constantly adds new computers to its network, making it a prolific PC assembler and manufacturer in its own right. "We are like Dell," quipped Peter Norvig, Google's chief of search quality.

The highly specialized world of technology breaks down these days into companies that do either hardware or software. Google's tech wizards have figured out how to do both well. "They run the largest computer system in the world," said John Hennessy, a member of Google's board of directors, a computer scientist and president of Stanford University. "I don't think there is even anything close."

Google doesn't need all that computer power to help us search for the best Italian restaurant in Northern Virginia. It has grander plans. The company is quietly working with maverick biologist Craig Venter and others on groundbreaking genetic and biological research. Google's immense capacity and turbo-charged search technology, it turns out, appears to be an ideal match for the large amount of data contained in the human genome. Venter and others say that the search engine has the ability to deal with so many variables at once that its use could lead to the discovery of new medicines or cures for diseases. Sergey Brin says searching all of the world's information includes examining the genetic makeup of our own bodies, and he foresees a day when each of us will be able to learn more about our own predisposition for various illnesses, allergies and other important biological predictors by comparing our personal genetic code with the human genome, a process known as "Googling Your Genes."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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