By Jack Shafer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; B07
The End of the World as We Know It
By Ken Auletta
Penguin. 384 pp. $27.95
I dare you to name a more plugged-in media and communications technology reporter than New Yorker staff writer Ken Auletta. As comfortable interrogating a network executive as he is interviewing a software genius or bottling a human tornado like Ted Turner, Auletta builds his media-technology books the way a mason builds a wall -- upon a firm foundation, one brick at a time and as level as the horizon.
In "Googled," Auletta applies this technique -- which served him in previous books about the Microsoft antitrust suit, the fall of the television networks and the evolution of the wired world -- to chronicle the rise of Google, the world's favorite search engine. (Disclosure: Auletta, a nodding acquaintance of mine, quotes me once briefly -- and neutrally.)
If you read the newspapers and magazines that cover Auletta's beat, you already know the basic outlines of the Google story: In the mid-1990s, Stanford University graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin devised a new search engine that assessed the value of Web pages based on the links that point to it from other pages. Venture capitalists nurtured the young company, and by 2000 it was the Web's most visited search engine. A public offering in 2004 quickly made billionaires of the founders, as well as Eric Schmidt, the experienced chief executive they'd acquired, as the company revolutionized the advertising market. Today, Google's ubiquity has earned it the status of a verb. You don't just search for information about a person or a subject on the Web, you google it, and Google's search dominance has allowed it to reap 40 percent ($20 billion yearly) of all online advertising revenue. Auletta won unprecedented cooperation from the founders and the company brass to tell the inside story in great detail. But our deep familiarity with Google tends to work against his book. If you've read other books about Google (notably John Battelle's "The Search" and David A. Vise and Mark Malseed's "The Google Story," both published in 2005), the narrative will seem a little worn.
As many commentators have pointed out, Google didn't invent Web search, didn't invent free Web-mail, didn't invent online photo storage or online maps, didn't invent online advertising pegged to search terms, didn't invent blogs, blog search, cloud computing, desktop search, online word processing or a host of other Web-related services and products. The company owes its success less to innovation in all these fields than to the steady improvement of its core function -- its search engine. Remember, when Google really got going at the turn of the century, its competitors regarded search as a commodity and believed that the key to building a Web audience from which they could make money was building a "portal" -- a branded site that aggregated weather, stocks, news, advertising and tons of other content -- to which users would return again and again.
The managers at AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft strategized that keeping Web traffic circulating inside the portal's "walled garden" was the key to success. But the philosophy of Google's founders, Page and Brin, was different. The extreme wideness of the World Wide Web made search the fundamental problem to solve. "If we solve search, that means you can answer any question," Auletta quotes Page as saying. "Which means you can do anything." Google's Zen-simple home page, devoid of ads or other distractions, was designed to speed users to their search results, and those speedy, accurate results changed search from a commodity into a brand, a very respected brand, Auletta notes.
But should Google itself be trusted? Yes, trusted to produce terrific search results, reliable e-mail service, videos aplenty on its YouTube site and economical venues for advertising. But no further. As Auletta probes the sophistry behind the Google slogan "Don't be evil" with his well placed sources in media and technology, the portrait he draws is of a rapacious, opportunistic company that seeks to disrupt -- in classic capitalist fashion -- whole industries. Its Android operating system -- and now a cell phone of its own design -- have targeted the mobile phone business. Google Voice has been assigned to conquer the telephony industry. The Chrome browser and the Chrome operating system are aimed at toppling Microsoft's grip on the computer desktop. The Google Books service is a cannon pointed at the heart of publishers. One of Auletta's top sources regards the company as a veritable "Googzilla" that intends to become a digital Wal-Mart for shoppers.
Auletta's thorough, readable account of how the world has become Googled makes you long for the future chapters in the company's history. Will it falter, as Microsoft did, when the antitrust hounds bite it and it starts to choke on its own bureaucratic inertia? Having failed to win in the social media space now dominated by Facebook and Twitter, will it stage a comeback? How long before the next generation of computer whizzes finds a way to leapfrog Google?
Auletta surveys his sources for their speculations but wisely keeps his crystal ball in its case. The abiding lesson of "Googled" is that nobody realizes that they're being displaced until its too late.
Jack Shafer writes about the media for Slate.