April 12, 2004

Google: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

A recent Blog article detailed the amazing back-end processes of Google, the company whose name has become the verb for it's industry in the same way that Xerox did for photocopiers. Google is the great Cinderella story of I.T. upstarts, showing that if your ideas are good enough, if your code is slick enough, and if you can secure enough revenue for your product to evolve into maturity, you can live happily ever after in a software engineer's utopia.

When two Stanford Computer Science grads launched their new search engine in 1998 from a garage in Menlo Park, California with $1 million borrowed from family & friends, it was with little fanfare. In the Gee-whiz days of the early boom, most industry analysts didn't give Google.com a second glance, and why would they? No flashy graphics and hundreds of distracting links, just a white page with a colorful logo, a search box and the now-famous "I Feel Lucky" button. Little did the internet community know that Google would turn out to be "the little search engine that could."

Fast forward to 2004, and Google is still ranked first among its search engine peers. But this company is never content to rest on its laurels, is still churning out innovations.

Fresh out of Beta is Google's sibling shopper program, Froogle, which allows users to search thousands of commercial web sites for the best deals. Before Froogle, the best way to compare prices on popular items was ComputerShopper.com, but that system was flawed, since only paid retail partners were ever listed in their indexes. While web retailers in general have a long way to before they are on a level playing field with e-commerce juggernauts like Amazon, you can find dozens of listings, indexed with the company name, price and product description easily readable. Common sense still applies with these small retailers, you have to decide if saving that $25 on your hard drive is worth giving your credit card number to a company called CheepDrives-R-US.COM. A fellow geek looking for computer hardware and parts for his Pac-Man MAME cabinet gushed all about Froogle, back when it was in it's beta infancy a couple of years ago, and it has only been refined and expanded since then.

Next item on the innovation slate from Google is "G-Mail". So what's so revolutionary about web-based e-mail? How about a 1GB storage capacity for free? Industry leader Yahoo only gives me 6MB of space, and one salvo of baby pictures from a co-worker can eat that up in one fell swoop. Google can afford to do this because they have the rack space to act as a global "Hard-Drive-in-the-Sky", estimating a capacity up to 100 Million GMail accounts within a few short years.

The idea behind GMail is just what you would expect: A Search Engine for your personal e-mails. With 1GB of space, you'd never have to delete a (non-spam) email, and thus each piece of correspondence would be on file and available to you. If you forget your brother-in-law's new address, you can search your GMail with a variant of Google's search engine. This is just the thing for users with a penchant for internet pen pals, (like my wife, who has to expunge her Hotmail account almost weekly).

However, there are some notable trade-offs with G-mail that most users might not read up on. The first trade-off is what I like to call the "Spam Non-Compete Agreement." Essentially, Google promises to terminate any spam messages delivered to your GMail account with extreme prejudice, in exchange for their OWN text-based ads to appear. Just like their web site, these ads will be subtle, and text-only, but these particular ads will be context sensitive to the text of your e-mails, instead of search keywords. I don’t think that this will be a major sticking point for most web mail users, since we deal with annoying banner ads on other sites anyway.

However, this text-sensitive ad issue belies a deeper privacy concern: These ads are not based on just the current e-mail, but ALL e-mail to and from your GMail account. Every message that passes through GMail, outgoing AND incoming, is saved to Google’s servers. The text of all the messages are indexed and sifted just like the web pages that they process. While I trust that the company will honor it’s agreement and not share my information, I worry about these servers being hacked or some new clause in Patriot Act-like legislation granting the government the ability to read my correspondence for the past five years.

ASIDE: I really love this age of modern linguistics, where a “Privacy Policy” details how a company will keep and share your personal information, and “The Clear Skies Initiative” lifts the pollution restrictions on American industrial giants, essentially giving them a blank check to throw as much crap into the air as they want.

Google is a truly unique company where technological innovation and revenue streams can live in peaceful harmony, like the lion eating straw with the ox. It’s a GeekTopian business model that proves that if you have enough smart people on your staff, and give them enough funding and creative freedom, that viable business can be harvested as a result. I, along with most creative-minded geeks out there, often daydream about working either at Google or Pixar. But just keep in mind that another bunch of creative geeks are hackers, always looking for creative ways of exploiting good software. There’s information risk in every action that we take online these days, just make sure to read the Privacy Policy of any service you sign up for, and just be mindful of the worst-case scenario.

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