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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Looking Back at Google in 2009

Google is perhaps our decade’s Xerox PARC with a commercial edge, and the speed at which they released products in 2009 was quite immense. This shows they do two things well so far: scaling technology (across different countries and languages, across hundreds of thousands or however many computers), and scaling employee count (nearly twenty-thousand employees and still stuff gets done, from small to big apps). Google is also getting bolder in their attitude; while their older mission poster used to read that Google should “Think and act like an underdog”, a recent Google writing proclaimed a bit of a different angle:

Because of our reach, technical know-how, and lust for big projects, we can take on big challenges that require large investments and lack an obvious, near-term pay-off. We can photograph the world’s streets so that you can explore the neighborhood around an apartment you are considering renting from a thousand miles away. We can scan millions of books and make them widely accessible (while respecting the rights of publishers and authors). We can create an email system that gives away a gigabyte of storage (now over 7 gigs) at a time when all other services allow only a small fraction of that amount. We can instantly translate web pages from any of 51 languages. We can process search data to help public health agencies detect flu outbreaks much earlier. We can build a faster browser (Chrome), a better mobile operating system (Android), and an entirely new communications platform (Wave), and then open them up for the world to build upon, customize, and improve.

We can do these things because they are information problems and we have the computer scientists, technology, and computational power to solve them. When we do, we make numerous platforms – video, maps, mobile, PCs, voice, enterprise – better, more competitive, and more innovative. We are often attacked for being too big, but sometimes being bigger allows us to take on the impossible.

While getting more aggressive in their stated attidude, including perhaps worrying statements by their boss and others in regards to privacy, I believe Google still takes karma very seriously, open sourcing quite a bit of their projects, as well as providing transparency when it comes to certain areas evolving around user data. But indeed just “certain areas”, as we need to keep in mind that Google says “As a matter of policy, we don’t provide specifics on law enforcement requests to Google.” One case in 2009 saw an anonymous blogger being uncovered by Google after an opposing party sued and won. Technical faults in 2009 led to private data finding its way to the public, like when certain Google Docs cloud document were erronously shared with others. Google also rolled out behaviorial targeting for ads, and certain search personalization even when you’re logged out of your account. On Google-powered Chinese social site Laiba, the following words of warning, originally in Chinese, were printed below the comment box:

After posting, your IP address will be published by Tianya Laiba. Please note that, following Chinese law, Tianya Laiba is required to store the data of time and IP address of your entry for at least 60 days, and that on legal requests we offer this data to the government organization.

Google also continued to work with and against censorship around the world. On the one hand, they provide technology which includes censorship in countries like Germany and China. On the other hand, they’re providing many tools which increase information flow, and Google includes organizations like Reporters Without Borders in their charity plans. Now while Google is open-sourcing on the one side, they’re also very secretive when asked about specifics of their workings with governments of countries like China.

In the card game of revenues, some of Google’s jokers – their popular but still ad-free sites – were still kept in hand in 2009. I don’t yet see any ads in Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Talk or Google Translate, for instance. Other jokers were put on the table, like with the inclusion of advertisements in Google News. On the Google aquisition side for Google, there were the companies AdMob, Gizmo5, Teracent, ReCaptcha, AppJet and others. 2009 was also the year in which Google continued to tighten its connection with the US government, as their code entered areas of, and they promoted an Obama Time Capsule project on their image search homepage. (Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, who previously had endorsed now US president Barack Obama, was appointed as member of Obama’s economic adviser team in 2008.)

Design-wise, Google’s switch to a minimalist-fade-in homepage was one of their more progressive and interesting moves of recent years. Not even their favicon remained the same this year. Result design changed, too, with an expandable options side bar connecting the user to features such as a Wonder Wheel. The result page is now also restricted to a certain width, and contains more padding than before. Instead of a plain URL we’ll now often see the navigational hierarchy. The results URL itself changed too, at least for some users for some time, using an anchor with dynamic in-page updates.

Google Street View, one of Google’s most interesting products to play around with, added several countries to its list: Canada, Czech Republic, UK, Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, and Taiwan. It also saw the addition of a more immersive full screen view feature, and navigation options based on 3D shapes overlaying the imagery. Some countries pose more troubles than others for Google; in Japan, imagery was required to be reshot using a lower camera angle, and authorities are also continuing to worry in Switzerland. Google Images in the meanwhile kept growing its options list, and you can now search pictures by color, restrict to a certain width and height, or find Creative Commons licensed content.

In 2009, Google killed off several products, like Google Catalog, Dodgeball, selling newspaper print ads, or Google Notebook. The Google SOAP API was finally shut down, following the notice years earlier. Niniane Wang – once pictured in an advertisement for Google which read “We’re privileged to have Niniane at Google, but we need more engineers like her” – quit Google this year; her social 3D world Lively was cancelled in 2008, just months after having been made available. Google China’s Kai-Fu Lee quit, too, as did Google Russia’s chief technology officer. Designer Doug Bowman, who also quit this year, said:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

I’m not sure Google’s focus on algorithm can solve these kind of unhappy employees problems. But Google is trying, as the Wall Street Journal wrote:

[Google] recently began crunching data from employee reviews and promotion and pay histories in a mathematical formula Google says can identify which of its 20,000 employees are most likely to quit.

Google officials are reluctant to share details of the formula, which is still being tested. The inputs include information from surveys and peer reviews, and Google says the algorithm already has identified employees who felt underused, a key complaint among those who contemplate leaving.

And what were some of Google’s releases and new efforts in 2009? The competition wasn’t sleeping, as we can see with Microsoft’s search contender Bing, or Wolfram Alpha; the return of the butler to Ask’s UK site is probably less noteworthy (and Yahoo continued to put a price tag on private user data, as internal documents revealed; search for “Basic subscriber records: approx. $20 for the first ID, $10 per ID thereafter”). Have a look at what Google came up with:

Google in late 2009 is now covering or aiming to cover web apps, the browser that runs the web apps, the OS that runs the browser, and, according to rumors, even the computer that runs the OS. The ads distribution chain is getting more complete – which is good for Google as long as they’re not stopped by the legal actions of a government – because in the main part their business consists of selling your attention to advertisers, so that these advertisers can get their ad message to you to sell more products. Also, Google gets more and more ways to cross-connect their products; they can push their search in their browser, they can push Docs in Gmail, they can push their browser in their OS, they can push Google Health in web search, and so on.

“It is harder and harder for me to spot an IT sector in which Google does not offer products and services,” Mathias Schindler pondered in the forum, “Can you think of any IT sector where there is no Google product (yet)?” Competition has a tough time, unless they happen to get bought up by Google, not only because of Google’s cross-integration power, but also because it would take mindblowing budget to reproduce Google’s cloud server farm. Google after all arguably owns the world’s biggest super computer, one with an AI that becomes better and better with more data. But the giant is growing taller by the second, and I’m curious if there will be a couple of instances where we’ll see him stumble over his own feet in 2010.

[Thanks to everyone who got involved here in 2009!]


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