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The world's most intriguing company

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2005



MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.

Impossible dream: Take all the books ever written, digitize them, and make them available to the world.

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"We had all these cockamamie schemes for how we could get content," recalls Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products at Google. "We thought, well, could we just buy books? But then you don't get the old content. We thought maybe we should just buy one of every book, like from Amazon, and scan them all."

How long would it take to scan all the world's books? No one knew, so Ms. Mayer and Google cofounder Larry Page decided to experiment with a book, photographing each page so that it could be digitally scanned. "We had a metronome to keep us on rhythm for turning the pages. Larry's job was to click the shutter, and my job was to turn the pages," Mayer says. "It took us about 45 minutes to do a 300-page book."

With that ad hoc experiment, Google began its now controversial Digital Library project last December, signing agreements with the New York Public Library and the libraries of Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Michigan to put their holdings online. Current projection: "Maybe inside of the next 10 years we'll have all the knowledge that's ever been published in book form available and searchable online," she says. "It's really a grand vision."

Grand vision seems to be the touchstone for the seven-year-old company, which earned more than $1.2 billion last quarter and is growing so fast and in so many directions that many observers are left scratching their heads. Just what is Google? Does the company itself even know? If it does, will its supersecret culture allow that vision to flourish?

Where the company's bread is buttered right now is clear: Nearly every one of its billions of dollars comes from selling advertising that appears when people search the Web using its ultrapopular search engine. With analysts saying more and more ads will be moving away from TV and print to online, Google would seem to have a bright future just doing what it's doing.

But Google has also become the world's biggest 'media' company, larger than TimeWarner, according to some, if a company can have that moniker without producing any original content. Others have their own ideas about what is, arguably, the most intriguing company on the planet.

"I think at its heart Google is a technology company," says David Edwards, an analyst at American Technology Research in San Francisco. "But it gets paid like a media company."

"They [Google] are a software company," proclaimed Microsoft's Bill Gates in a Fortune magazine article last month. "They are more like us than anyone else we have ever competed with."

"They're a little like a fetal stem cell," says Geoffrey Moore, a consultant to high-tech businesses and author of the popular management book "Crossing the Chasm," searching for a metaphor. "It could be an arm, it could be a head, it could be a leg." With a culture that stresses freedom and innovation, Google's "got lots and lots of possibilities" and may become "a lot of different businesses," he says.

The company's e-mail service, Gmail, and its new customized home page make Yahoo! a competitor. But as Google develops software, including a possible Web browser or a "thin client" that would allow more computing to take place on its servers instead of on individual desktops, it takes on Microsoft. Its new online payment service, which some have dubbed Google Wallet, would appear to rival eBay's successful PayPal, though Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive officer, has denied that's the case. This week, a prominent eBay engineer starts work at Google.

"Google is in the position of being a lot of people's rivals, and that could be a potential problem for them," says Andy Beal, vice president of marketing at WebSourced, an Internet marketing firm in Morrisville, N.C., and editor of SearchEngineLowdown.com.

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