Googled: The End of the World as We Know It

A look at the meteoric rise of Google.

Googled By Ken Auletta Penguin Press 400 pp., $27.95

In early 1998, Bill Gates headed Microsoft at the peak of its commercial powers. The world’s preeminent software giant claimed a 90 percent market share in all desk and laptop PCs and it was difficult to imagine anything that could unsettle, much less evoke fear in, the Sultan of Software.

Nonetheless, when asked what challenge he most feared, Gates responded, “I fear someone in a garage who is devising something completely new.” Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the cofounders of Google, were that very pair. Nestled in a Menlo Park, Calif., garage, these two software engineers were preparing to launch a product that would change the way the world used the Internet.

Ken Auletta, an author and a longtime columnist for the The New Yorker, documents the meteoric rise of Google from its humble beginnings through its multibillion-dollar profits in his latest book, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It. As the latter half of the title suggests, Auletta’s work is more than just a history of Google and a biography of its principals. It is rather a tripartite inspection of modern technological innovation, the decline of traditional media (print journalism, music CDs, etc.) and its revenue stream (advertising sales), and the ways in which Google serves as a flash point for many of the successes and controversies surrounding the Digital Age.

Google’s uncommon rise is perhaps fitting for the most uncommon of companies. The free amen­ities offered to Google employees are certainly unorthodox. Gourmet meals, massages, dry cleaning, and all-day transportation to and from work are provided to Googlers at no cost. Volleyball courts, expansive grass fields, and employees pedaling around on company bicycles make the GooglePlex in Mountain View, Calif., look more like a college campus than the headquarters of a firm that boasted 2008 revenues of $21.796 billion. Google even allocates 20 percent of employees’ time for projects and activities of their own choosing. Google News, the popular news aggregator, is the product of one software engineer’s mandated free time. Incessant innovation has made Google the best search engine in the world and is a product of the company’s unofficial ethos “to shoot for the moon, not the tops of trees.”

Auletta regularly diverges from the history of Google to frame the company’s rise in the context of an environment in which traditional media firms, by resisting innovation time after time, have begun penning their own eulogies. Auletta’s treatment of the newspaper, magazine, and music giants of the world is far from harsh, however. Edgar Bronfman, Warner Music Group’s CEO, summarizes the author’s take, “The record business is in trouble. The music business is not.” It is clear that there is still a market for information and for journalism. It is less clear how media companies will engineer a means of distribution for their content that not only caters to the changing habits of its users, but also can be properly monetized to make their operations profitable.

Google’s casual workplace culture and free services (GMail, Google Earth, etc.) have created a public brand that meshes neatly with Brin and Page’s “Don’t be evil” corporate slogan. Hundreds of millions of users trust the Google logo and many of its accompanying products. The founding duo dismisses the prospect that Google would ever betray user privacy for strictly commercial, and presumably selfish, ends.

Nevertheless, Google archives significant stores of data on its users’ online behaviors to better target advertising with the ultimate goal of increasing revenues. Auletta keenly observes that the “do first, ask questions later” mentality of Google’s founders is bound to create significant obstacles to growth. Copyright concerns and privacy rights are just two of the controversies surrounding Google’s use of online content and users’ information.

Auletta neatly inspects the threats, both internal and external, that will challenge Google’s founders, executives, shareholders, users, and competitors in the future. His thorough reporting and declarative writing provide a crisp, informative read. A seasoned observer of the boom-bust cycles emanating from California’s Silicon Valley, Auletta displays the skill of a responsible journalist in both researching and crafting this snapshot of today’s technological landscape.

Having witnessed the rise and decline of countless Internet and software start-ups, Auletta proceeds with an analyst’s discretion when determining the effects of Google as a product, a publicly traded company, and a corporate brand. Although Auletta acknowledges the robust success of Google, he is quick to point out that the company is far from invincible. It only takes a few geniuses in a garage to prove that.

Jackson Holohan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.

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