Daniel Lyons is a freelance journalist and a writer for the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley.”
Google is the biggest and best-known Internet company in the world, a colossus with revenue expected to top $65 billion in 2015. It makes headlines seemingly every week — including last week’s unflattering publication of the government’s 2012 investigation into possible antitrust practices. But despite being so familiar, Google is often misunderstood. Here are five common myths.
1. Google is a search company.
Search is Google’s primary product. Its search engine is so widely used that “Google” has become a dictionary-approved verb, and the company makes virtually all of its money by selling ads connected to search.
But Google’s ventures into self-driving cars and balloons that deliver Internet connectivity from the stratosphere show that it’s not just a search company. Its long-term plan is to become an artificial-intelligence company.
Google has built a research group around AI and machine learning, and it even hired renowned AI guru Ray Kurzweil, who believes that by 2045 humans will merge with computers in what’s known as “the Singularity.” Google’s recent acquisitions speak to its intentions: British company DeepMind, one of the most advanced AI development shops in the world, plus eight of the world’s best robotics companies. Nobody knows what Google will do with all these robots and AI software, but its ambitions certainly go well beyond self-driving cars.
This work takes place inside Google X, the company’s top-secret research lab. A few hundred people work there, a tiny but potent slice of Google’s workforce of 53,600. Google isn’t alone in the quest to develop AI (Facebook also has an AI research team), but it’s one of the few organizations with the brainpower and financial resources to make true artificial intelligence a reality. Plus, AI is in its blood: Google co-founder and chief executive Larry Page is the son of renowned AI pioneer Carl Page, and he’s personally funding a research project to reverse-engineer the brain of a worm. “Every time I talk about Google’s future with Larry Page, he argues that it will become an artificial-intelligence” company, tech venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson has said .
2. Google Glass was a failure.
Headlines proclaimed that Google Glass “flopped” and “failed” after the company announced it would stop selling its goofy $1,500 eyewear. As a consumer product, Glass was declared clunky, too expensive and not useful.
But Glass shouldn’t be measured only in terms of its commercial success. I n the summer of 2013, I was among a group of “influencers” invited to the Google campus to see some future products. Many of the influencers showed up proudly sporting their Google Glass eyewear — and looking like idiots. Not one of the Google executives wore Glass.
That’s because Google viewed Glass as an experiment, a way to explore wearable computing and learn lessons it can apply to other, presumably less-hideous-looking products. Wearable devices, all the rage at this year’s South by Southwest tech conference, will eventually be a huge market, encompassing products from virtual-reality goggles to fitness bands to smartwatches such as the new Apple watch and the competitor version that Google announced this past week . Though Glass didn’t catch on, it created tremendous buzz and established Google as a pioneer in the market.
3. Google is a leading force for diversity in Silicon Valley.
The company made news for publishing numbers on its workforce demographics in May 2014, which encouraged Facebook and Yahoo to follow suit. Internally, Google has launched workshops to teach employees about “unconscious bias,” and it has donated millions since 2010 to groups that aim to get girls and women interested in tech careers. In February, Google announced $775,000 in grants to CODE2040, an organization trying to help more African Americans and Latinos join the industry.
But “we’re the first to admit that Google is miles from where we want to be,” the company’s head of “people operations,” Laszlo Bock, said of its 2 percent black workforce, adding that “being totally clear about the extent of the problem is a really important part of the solution.” If Google wants to position itself as a leader on diversity, it might consider promoting more women and minorities to positions of power at the company. Google’s 11-member board of directors boasts only three women and no African Americans. Its management team includes five executive officers — all male, one black. Its senior leadership team has 15 members; only three are women, and none is African American.
Google might also encourage one of its most powerful officers to stop acting sexist on a national stage. Chairman Eric Schmidt was called out this past week (by the company’s “unconscious bias” officer) for repeatedly interrupting Megan Smith, a former Google executive who is now chief technology officer of the United States, while Schmidt and Smith appeared on a South by Southwest panel together.
4. Google has an unassailable monopoly on search.
Google dominates the search market so thoroughly that in 2009, when Microsoft introduced its Bing search engine, even people who admired the product reckoned that it didn’t stand a chance. “In 2004, if this was side-by-side with Google, it would be very competitive. In 2009, it’s not a level playing field,” Alex Hoye, head of a search engine marketing firm, told the Guardian. He was right. Six years later, Bing has a 12 percent market share in search, and Google has 75 percent — even greater than its share in 2009. Other rivals keep trying to chip away — Yahoo recently picked up a couple of market-share points and now holds 10.6 percent — but it appears that in the traditional search engine market, the game is over, and Google has won.
The real threat to Google’s search business, though, doesn’t come from Microsoft or Yahoo. It comes from Amazon and Facebook, and from the changing habits of online shoppers. Amazon and Facebook aren’t in the search business, strictly speaking, but increasingly people turn to these sites to learn about products. In other words, the challenge to Google is not that competitors will take over the traditional search engine market but that traditional search engines will become less relevant as search takes place on other sites. “Our biggest search competitor is Amazon,” Schmidt acknowledged last October. “They are obviously more focused on the commerce side of the equation, but, at their roots, they are answering users’ questions and searches, just as we are.” (Google’s apparent answer to the threat of Amazon was, according to the 2012 government investigation, to illegally copy content from Amazon to improve its own sites.)
5. Google is Big Brother.
If you’re using Google’s online services, including search, Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Drive, Google+, Android, Wallet and Picasa, Google knows a lot about you: your location, browsing history, the videos you watch, your age, gender and interests. That’s earned the company plenty of Big Brother comparisons. (Google it.) Google’s rivals love to play up the company’s spying capabilities. Microsoft spent millions on its “Scroogled” ad campaign, which aimed to scare people away from a big, nefarious company that was snooping on its users.
There is a Big Brother online, but it’s not Google: It’s the NSA. The National Security Agency is the one peering into every major tech company’s systems, hoovering up personal information, and refusing to talk about what it stole or why. Google does gather data about people who use its services, much like other online companies — Apple has as many as 800 million credit card numbers on file and perhaps billions of personal photos gathered from iPhones on its iCloud service, including numerous nude celebrity photos leaked by hackers. The point is not that Google gathers information about people, but rather why. The company’s stated goal, and there is no evidence to contradict it, is to deliver ads more relevant to your interests (and ultimately charge more for these ads).
Google has responded aggressively to news about the NSA’s activities revealed in the Edward Snowden leaks, vowing to keep developing techniques to prevent the agency from spying on people who use its services. Co-founder Sergey Brin, who expressed shock over the NSA’s activities, said Google has 1,000 engineers working on security and has started encrypting data flowing across its servers. Schmidt described its defenses as “techniques that no one believes the NSA can break in our lifetime.” Mike Hearn, a security researcher at Google, offered this response: “Nobody at . . . the NSA will ever stand before a judge and answer for this industrial-scale subversion of the judicial process. In the absence of working law enforcement, we therefore do what internet engineers have always done — build more secure software.”