Googled: The end of the world as we know it

Googled: The End of the World as We Know It
Googled: The End of the World as We Know It (Penguin Press)
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Ken Auletta
Author, Journalist, Media Critic
Friday, December 11, 2009; 1:05 PM

Ken Auletta, author of Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, was online Friday, Dec. 11, at 1:05 p.m. ET to discuss the outsize influence Google has had on the changing media landscape. Auletta is also a journalist and media critic for The New Yorker (Annals of Communication).

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Colorado: Mr. Auletta,

Doesn't the informal Google motto: "Don't be evil" affect Google's business practices at all? Do you think they take this motto seriously? Thanks.

Ken Auletta: Google does take the motto seriously, and proof of this can be found in the way they conduct search. They take pride in not allowing ads on the Google home page, in not trying to trap searchers on a Google site, in not allowing websites or advertisers to pay to rank higher in the search results. Yet like any slogan, it sometimes bumps into real world reality -- as happened when Google agreed to politically sanitize some searches in China. It may not have been evil, but it wasn't good.

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Memphis, Tenn.: What surprised you most about this company and its leaders while writing this?

Ken Auletta: How two young men still in their twenties had such clarity. They were confident that if they built it, people would come; confident that by giving 20% of their time to engineers to work on innovations of their choice would result in new products. Etc.

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Washington, D.C.: As someone who is in touch with the latest developments in the communications industry; what do you think Google's ultimate goal is as a company...to be Big Brother...be the wealthiest gold-standard for business...something else?

Ken Auletta: Google, as CEO Eric Schmidt told me, aims to be the first $100 billion media company. To succeed at that, in addition to search and its $21 billion advertising business, Google is betting on success in television and movies (YouTube), mobile telephones (Android, and portable and inexpensive software (cloud computing.

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Washington, D.C.: Your work is great and I look forward to reading this book about Google. What will you be focusing on over the next few years?

Ken Auletta: I am back at The New Yorker and plan to be reporting communications and media pieces for them.

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Washington, D.C.: Would you agree that the most significant thing that's come out of this decade is "search." I think I read where you said that somewhere. Can you verify and explain?

Ken Auletta: I would not say that search is the most significant thing to emerge in the past decade. I don't even think Google executives would say search is more significant than global warming, or Iraq and the Middle East, or nuclear proliferation.

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Alexandria, Va.: Who will benefit from Vevo? How will it be monetized? What's in it for Google, since it will take viewers away from YouTube?

Ken Auletta: Universal, which is partnering with Google to provide this online music service, hopes to benefit. Whether they can make money off Vevo is the same question that haunts YouTube and so many online efforts. If Vevo would up subtracting viewers from YouTube, Google would not mind if they both can generate a profit. The jury is out as to whether they can.

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Alexandria, Va.: Will Google's "Chrome" strategy of moving all data and apps (other than browser plug-ins) to the cloud ever succeed, or do people want to keep things on their own systems? If it does succeed, how will this change the way that we interact with computers?

Ken Auletta: We can't know whether the cloud will succeed. Cloud computing succeeds with our e-mail, which is stored in similar servers and follows us (in the cloud) on any device. But if the servers crash, and has happened to gmail and YouTube on occasion, our apps become inaccessible. On the other hand, if our computer crashes we also lose access to our apps. What choices consumers will make cannot be known -- yet. But one change to our computing experience with cloud computing is that when we turn on the power supply our computers will come alive quickly.

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Silver Spring, Md.: There are a lot of rumors on the Internet about Google designing, building and selling the Google Phone some time next year. According to these reports this will be the Android OS phone that Google intended, not just an implementation of Android by cell phone manufacturers and providers. Is Google ready to jump into the hardware business? Any validity to these stories?

Ken Auletta: Senior Google executives always insisted to me that they did not want to get in the hardware business. Unlike Steve Jobs, they did not want to control both the software and hardware. Even when Google publicly bid to own spectrum space, they did not want to win. They wanted to force the telephone companies to open up their systems.

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Fairfax, Va.: Sorry, I meant the most significant thing in the world of media and the Internet re my question about search.

Ken Auletta: Search is profoundly important. It sure makes my life as a reporter and author simpler and more productive. But I'm reluctant to offer an instant opinion that it has been the most significant thing in the world of media in a decade. I'd need more time to think about that than I have in this hour.

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Arlington, Va.: How much of a benefit does Google get from it's 20-percent rule, where employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time on their own, unsupervised projects. Is it something more companies should try?

Ken Auletta: Google derive enormous benefit from awarding its engineers 20% of their time to work on any project. Many of Google's innovations -- like Google News -- came from this day a week engineers are granted. What it does is give employees a sense of freedom, of liberation from management and other limitations. Spend time on the Google campus and that feeling is palpable.

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Alexandria, Va.: If Google keeps all of the search information that people use, then isn't it logical that the could create profiles of many of their users, to possibly be used for a myriad of things, both good and profitable for others?

Ken Auletta: As Sarah Palin might say, You Betcha!

Google has amassed a mountain of data on what we search, read, watch, buy. They don't know our name, but their cookies contain a good deal of info about us. That info is coveted by advertisers, who want to better target their ad spending.

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McLean, Va.: Will Google move out across America by putting up data centers at various Internet backbone hubs?

Ken Auletta: Although it is a state secret at Google how many data centers they have, there are an estimated 30 to 40 data centers. One reason the average search is so fast -- four tenths of a second -- is that the search is directed to the data center nearest the search user.

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Quogue, N.Y.: You also wrote on another billionaire, Ted Turner. Although there are stark differences between the Google men and Turner; what similarities, if any, are there?

Ken Auletta: Passion. A vision. Risk-takers. Balls.

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Washington, D.C.: How much access did you get to the two founders and how did they strike you, considering that they are billionaires at such a young age?

Ken Auletta: I could not have written "Googled" without the cooperation of the founders. I interviewed a total of about 150 Google employees, and spent a total of 13 weeks on the Google campus. I conducted three interviews with Sergey Brin, one long interview with Larry Page, and attended many of their meetings. I interviewed CEO Eric Schmidt 12 times.

Page and Brin are not garrulous executives, like many corporate types. They are not consumed by their wealth, which now hovers around $15 billion each. But they each have a jet airplane, and new families, and at 36 are spending a bit more time smelling the roses.

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Verbage: Ken: Have you ever said "Google Me" to get a better table at a restaurant?

Ken Auletta: No.

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Fairfax, Va.: On another topic, if you don't mind ... The moves at ABC with Diane Sawyer moving to World News and George Stephanopoulos to GMA ... what do you think of this? Will GMA change for him? Can he handle it? Is it wise to change a format in the fiercely competitive morning contest between ABC, NBC and CBS. Isn't the mission the same with all of those shows?

Ken Auletta: While World News and its anchor is most prestigious position, the biggest money maker for ABC News is GMA. They chose Stephanopoulos because they believe he has the best chance of keeping that engine humming and maybe one day overtaking the Today Show. I'm sure they will placate George's talent by hardening up the first hour of news and maybe letting him escape some of the odious morning chores. But it is a morning show with a majority female audience and he would not have gotten this job (and a much fatter salary) if he insisted on a radical change in the format.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why does Google want us all to buy Android phones and apps for them if their plan is to make Chrome, not Android, the OS for portable devices (namely next-generation Netbooks

Ken Auletta: Google is throwing lots of things at the wall to see what sticks. They could have Android as the OS for portable devices and Chrome for desktops and Netbooks and laptops.

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Anonymous: How much in cash reserves has Google got and what might they have on their Christmas wish list ?

Ken Auletta: Several months ago, Google had about $20 billion in cash. Last Spring, Twitter was on their wish list, but it wasn't for sale. They have the cash, and the stock valuation, to buy most any Christmas present they want. But compared to a Cisco or Intel, they have been more cautious in opening their wallets.

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Alexandria, Va.: Google's products are almost always in beta, and they often just fall by the wayside without coming to fruition. Is this because there's no real marketable "product," as there is at companies like Microsoft, but just advertising carriers?

Ken Auletta: Google often seemed to me like a kid in a candy store with a credit card. Their culture encourages experimentation, even if it's costly and falters. Some companies conduct test market research with tiny samples or with focus groups. Google introduces products to a much larger beta testing market.

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New York, N.Y.: Have you tried out Google Wave yet? And if so, what do you think its utility might end up being for the general public?

Ken Auletta: I have looked at Google Wave. I understand it's potential value, but not for me.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the NBC/Comcast merger? Will it give them too much power and influence over what Americans can see on TV?

Ken Auletta: The anti-trust concern for government is whether a cable distributor like Comcast will favor their own content with better channel numbers and try to impede competitive channels. When AOL and Time Warner merged, the government made sure their cable system was open to cable news channels that competed with their CNN. But at a time when viewers have more video choices, and NBC's viewership declines, I do not believe Comcast will monopolize my news or entertainment choices.

Do I think

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Alexandria, Va.: If certain news organizations prevent Google from searching their current stories, will that help them build their own profitable online business, or will they lose business when Google sends searchers to other news sites instead?

Ken Auletta: We don't know. And won't know until news organizations jump off that bridge and find out if they hit soft water or hard concrete.

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes today's discussion with Ken Auletta. Thanks for joining us.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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