Google once reviled internet superpowers but domination is just what it is achieving
Published 08/09/2008 | 01:47
There are not many companies whose trade names have become verbs. And there must be even fewer who would view this as a cause for concern. But when Google entered the dictionary in 2006, the directors seemed furious. Instead of celebrating their status as the ultimate household name, they were found muttering darkly about "brand dilution" and the company's future.
As Google celebrates its 10th birthday this week – just days after the announcement of its very own web browser – the reasons for this early frustration have become abundantly clear. What started as a plucky search engine set up by two students in a garage is now one of the world's most powerful companies, whose reach extends far beyond the web searches that made its name and into almost every way in which the internet is used.
Now Google has become a symbol of the internet as a whole. A YouGov survey published last week found that Britons suffered from "discomgooglation" – a term used to describe how lost people feel if they can't get on the internet.
Responding to the survey, more than three-quarters of internet users in the UK said they could not live without the web. More than 50 per cent also found the internet more important than religion.
The discomgooglation statistics were telling, but it was the term itself that revealed the power of the company.
Following the launch of web services such as Gmail, Google Maps and Google Earth, not to mention its acquisition of You-Tube, Google is looking more and more like the computing giants it set itself up to oppose. And the new Google Chrome browser is the most aggressive example of this so far.
Last week a comic book detailing why Chrome would be faster and better than its competitors was "accidentally" leaked, creating a storm of interest in the media. It was the most direct attack on Microsoft to date, coming at a time when its eighth version of Internet Explorer had been previewed (with little media attention) just days before.
In the company's early days, its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, said Google would not need its own browser. He added that there was no plan to take on Microsoft with online versions of applications because they did not provide as good an experience as desktop software. But all that changed two years ago when Google released a succession of online applications to rival Microsoft's – culminating in last week's launch of Chrome.
Google justified this foray into the final area of the internet not yet under its control by saying it wanted something that would work well with its existing facilities. "Everything we do is running on the web platform," said co-founder Larry Page. "It's very important to us that that works well."
But others believe there was a very different motivation. In the test version of Internet Explorer 8, there appeared to be a feature that might block Google's targeted advertising. Given that 99 per cent of the company's annual revenue is made from advertising, this could hold the key to the company's sudden interest in expanding into the browser market.
In many ways it is misleading to think of Google as an internet giant; it is primarily an advertising giant. By enticing users with free content and programs, it has been able to provide space for increasingly targeted adverts that have proved highly lucrative. Now 40 per cent of all online advertising is controlled by Google – a monopoly that it has good reason to defend.
Today, Google has a $16.6bn (£9.4bn) annual revenue, $4.2bn of which is profit. But its increasing domination of the market is making people uneasy.
In July two of the company's web engineers said they had registered the trillionth web page available via the search engine. While some marvelled at how the internet had grown, others were alarmed by the potential power of a company that holds such a wealth of information about our lives.
Its unofficial motto "Don't be Evil", which has been at the heart of the company's code of conduct since its inception, is looking increasingly flimsy as it goes about the business of world domination. And Google has noticed this too. In a recent interview the company's vice-president, Marissa Mayer, began the back-track, saying "Don't be Evil" had never been and would never be an elected or ordained motto.
Inside the Googleplex, the glass-clad HQ in California, they keep their staff loyal with generous services and a laid-back atmosphere. But for all the wholesome, beanbag-strewn offices, Google is turning into a menacing presence that is using increasingly aggressively tactics to stay above its rivals.
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin sat in that Californian garage in 1998, dreaming up a business that could be different from Microsoft, it is doubtful they were envisaging becoming more aggressive than Bill Gates's behemoth. But all the coloured beanbags and free lunches in the world could not disguise the tide of feeling that turned against the company when they announced Chrome last week.
When The Drudge Report linked to news wires about Chrome last week, it was under the headline "Domination". No longer "the little company that made good", the extent of Goo-gle's power is provoking fear and anger in the tech community.
Bill Stewart, the internet historian and founder of livinginternet.com, said Google's image took a nosedive last week. "There has been a tremendous amount of goodwill for Google but the announcement of the browser is a tipping point.
"It indicates that they are out to dominate and are mimicking their worst enemy: Microsoft. There has been a change in sentiment. The goodwill has evaporated and turned to concern."
The European Parliament is already scrutinising Google for potential invasion of privacy and copyright. Meanwhile, copyright lawsuits have flooded in for YouTube's use of video clips, and there have been court battles over content stored on Google News and Google Books.
But it is privacy that now seems to be sparking the most concern. With every Google search collated and recorded, it is not surprising that the public are uneasy about the company. Google will not say if it has ever given information gathered from its services to the police, but with such a substantial database, it could be an incredibly powerful tool.
After a public outcry, Google ceased to store information about the world's internet habits for life – now they are held for just 18 months. But many are still concerned.
"I'm worried about Google and I think a lot of people are increasingly worried", says Mr Stewart. "They set up a structure to avoid the mistakes of others, but I've noticed a marked difference in the last year. It would appear they're turning into their enemy. There's tremendous concern about the information they hold."
And concern about data stored from the search engine is just the beginning. One of its newer ventures, Google Street View, makes government CCTV surveillance look amateur.
Already in place in cities around America and Europe, the company has taken photographs of 360-degree street views that can be viewed as part of Google Maps and Google Earth. Residents in San Francisco were alarmed to realise they could zoom in on their own houses so closely that they could see the people inside.
Ten years on from those first tentative attempts to catalogue the internet, Google's services are available in 112 languages. You can even search in Klingon – the Star Trek dialect of choice for geeks the world over.
Until now, Google's light-hearted approach and brightly coloured branding has wooed the world into believing it is no more than a friendly provider of useful information. But while the company continues its rapid expansion into every aspect of our online lives, the implications of Google's reign over the internet could be distinctly less bright.
Ten ways to take over the web...
1. Google Earth: shows images of the Earth and even the galaxies, using satellite imagery and aerial photography.
2. Google Street: gives street- level images of cities in the US and Europe, with 360 degree- views.
3. Google Maps: provides directions to destinations, and street maps which can be a hybrid of a map and aerial view.
4. Gmail: free email accounts accessible from any computer with internet access. Funded using targeted advertising that searches users' mail.
5. Chrome browser: launched last week, Google has boasted that this will be the fastest browser, showing thumbnails of favourite sites and shortcuts to web applications.
6. YouTube: free website which that users upload, view and share video clips.
7. Google News: aggregates news stories from more than 4,500 English language news sites, and can be customised according to readers' interests.
8. Google Books: selects books that match search terms. Lets you browse the books online and, in some cases, download the full text.
9. Documents and spreadsheets: free documents that can be integrated into other applications to share information on a real-time basis.
10. Google Android: this software platform and operating system for mobiles could be a major challenger to the iPhone.