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Google’s crazy barge scheme: Your complete guide

Here’s the much-talked-about barge in San Francisco Bay. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)
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Update, Nov. 6: Google has provided some clarity. The company says it’s “exploring using the barge as an interactive space where people can learn about new technology.” Which barge or what technology (perhaps Google Glass?) wasn’t specified. Google also noted that “it’s still early days and things may change.” So we’ll have to keep waiting, but the data center possibility was specifically ruled out.

There are two mysterious structures built on barges, one in San Francisco Bay, the other in Maine’s Portland Harbor. We know Google is behind both of them, but the company has been silent on details. Most believe the barges will host data centers on water — which the company has a patent for — or serve as floating stores for Google products.

Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one?

Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin as Stanford grad students. Their company often tries radical things such as Project Loon (yes, that’s the official name), which strives to deliver balloon-powered Internet.

I need to know more about these guys. How do they think?

Google CEO Larry Page is no slave to conventional wisdom. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, a former Google employee, said this of Page: “His super power is asking ‘why not.’ On everything. It helps him challenge.” Brin is similar. He has long wanted to integrate Google technology into the brains of users. As he said in 2010: “We want to make Google the third half of your brain.” Brin plays a critical role in Google X, the company’s top-secret lab that focuses on shoot-for-the-stars projects such as self-driving cars.

Is there anything that can stop these guys?

Yes, permits. Whether you’re reserving your local park for a softball practice or trying to change the world with a flotilla of data centers, permits are required. The brilliant minds of Google find themselves entangled in a bureaucratic headache. The San Francisco Bay cannot be used for something that can be built on land. The company has had conversations about the structure with local authorities, but has been vague about its intentions.

Are there advantages of building on the water?

Google explains this in its patent application for a water-based data center, which was granted in 2009:

A military presence may be needed in an area, a natural disaster may bring a need for computing or telecommunication presence in an area until the natural infrastructure can be repaired or rebuilt, and certain events may draw thousands of people who may put a load on the local computing infrastructure. Often, such transient events occur near water, such as a river or an ocean. However, it can be expensive to build and locate data centers, and it is not always easy to find access to necessary (and inexpensive) electrical power, high-bandwidth data connections, and cooling water for such data centers.

A big plus is cooling the servers with sea water, which would take less energy than traditional air conditioners, and powering the servers with wave energy.

And we’re certain it’s a data center?

A Bay Area TV station has said the barge will be a marketing center for Google Glass, the wearable computer that connects to eyeglasses. Business Insider has suggested the same thing. An anonymous source told CNET that the barges will be stores that float from city to city via river. Update (Nov. 1): The San Francisco TV station has since followed up, saying the barge will be a luxury showroom and party deck, available to invite-only clients to experience Google Glass. Having the party deck makes sense, given the lack of windows in the structure. TechCrunch has also said the barges will be used to showcase Glass.

Okay, a store like Apple and Microsoft have. It’s a logical next step for Google.

Well, not completely. When Google has given Glass to select early customers, the company has taken them to locations with great views. The San Francisco structure has no windows and is only four stories high. There are better views in San Francisco for people to first experience Glass. The structure in Maine does have windows, but not many.

Any other possibilities? Could Google be pranking us?

The company has a long history of April Fool’s jokes, but we’re five months too early for that. Google is still finding room for humor in what appears to be a serious project. The barges are owned by a Delaware company called By and Large LLC, a likely reference to “Buy N Large,” a corporation in the futuristic film WALL-E. And the barge numbers are in binary code (BAL0011 in Maine, BAL0010 in San Francisco).

Anything else I should know?

Here’s a great video of the barge in Maine. If you want to learn even more, check out these thorough stories by Tom Bell and Daniel Terdiman.