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27.01.2015

The Tech Giants Shaping Our World Part 5: Google

Google is an organisation that needs no introduction. It is the world’s most valuable company, overtaking Apple back in May. In the Oxford Dictionary, considered to be the most authoritative dictionary on the English language, ‘Google’ is now a verb. Whether it’s the search engine itself, YouTube, Android, or one of a plethora of other subsidiaries, there’s a strong chance that the tech giant is embedded in your life.

Google is an organisation that needs no introduction. It is the world’s most valuable company, overtaking Apple back in May. In the Oxford Dictionary, considered to be the most authoritative dictionary on the English language, ‘Google’ is now a verb. Whether it’s the search engine itself, YouTube, Android, or one of a plethora of other subsidiaries, there’s a strong chance that the tech giant is embedded in your life.

Google has data centres in Taiwan, Singapore, Finland, Belgium, Ireland and seven more across the United States. However, the world’s most valuable company came from very humble beginnings.

It all started in a college dorm room in 1995. Students Larry Page and Sergey Brin were studying for their PhDs at Stanford University. They decided to undertake a project, in which the mission was to provide context and organisation to links and pages on the World Wide Web. The search engine was named Google, a play on the word “googol”, a mathematical term for a 1 followed by 100 zeroes. The colourful logo we all know today reminiscent of the company’s first server rack, which was built using Lego. Containing 10 4GB hard drives, this DIY storage space allowed Page and Brin to not only build their ‘digital library’ but to scale their server in a cost-effective way as more drives were added.

By 1998, Google Inc. became official when Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim wrote a cheque for $100,000 to the entity, which until then didn’t exist.

So how did a search engine grow to become a tech giant that has dominated the globe? Before 1995, search engines relied on databases of textual keywords to return relevant results. Unfortunately, the process did not always return logical results. What Google did was follow links from page to page, known as “crawling” and sorted the results by their content and other factors using specially-designed algorithms. All of it is kept track of in what is referred to as “The Index”.

But this was just the start. As Google became the world’s most popular search engine, the tech giant invested in other companies, including their famous $1.65 billion purchase of YouTube. One of the subsidiaries that began to have a major impact in the real world was Keyhole, a tool that would become Google Earth. The virtual globe and geographic data of Google Earth has become a vital instrument for disaster response, most notably after Japan’s 2011 earthquake.

The difference between Google and most other organisations is a way of thinking. If history has taught us anything, it’s that every now and then humanity takes a giant leap forward by making the impossible, possible. In 1795, Napoleon offered a reward to anybody that could devise a safe and reliable method of preserving food for his travelling military. After 15 years of experimenting with preserving boiled foodstuffs in wax-sealed glass bottles, confectioner Nicolas Appert submitted his pièce de résistance. Appert’s innovation was quickly built upon, paving the way for commercial canning and modern food preservation. This is how Google thinks. Not in small steps, but giant leaps forward. At the centre of it all is Google X, the tech giant’s secret research laboratory.

Overseen by Sergey Brin and scientist, Astro Teller, the aim of the Google X laboratory is to improve technologies by a factor of 10. These technologies are referred as
“moonshots”. It began in 2010 with the development of a self-driving car, which has clocked up over 700,000 accident-free miles of autonomous driving. Another innovation of the Google X facility includes Project Loon, an internet service provided via balloons in the stratosphere with the aim of connecting those in less-developed countries with the rest of the world. In May 2014 we saw the release of Google Glass, the wearable tech that displays information on an optical head-mounted display. While it received a mixed reception among audiences, nobody can deny the innovation behind the device.

With creations seemingly inspired by science-fiction, it begs the question as to why the tech giant released Chromecast. The thumb-sized HDMI device that streams media to your television doesn’t seem to fit in with the ‘factor of 10’ approach that the company strives for. It does the same job as a $99 Apple TV at around a third of the cost, and sold out almost immediately. For a company that prides itself on building for the future, why would it go through the trouble of building a product that might be superfluous in tomorrow’s world?

Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. It requires a lot of social input to drive it, so could the device’s true purpose have something to do with a creation far more ambitious? Through subtle layers of software, it’s well-known that a lot of Google’s innovations come from user behaviour. From statistics on Google searches to the way we use Android, and now, conceivably our television viewing habits. It’s not implausible to think that Google might be gearing up to assemble an internet TV service, something that cable operators and programmers will no doubt fear. While streaming services like Netflix have already changed the way many of us watch television, a company like Google isn’t likely to simply compete, but instead take a ‘moonshot’.

The secrecy of Google’s plans will lead to much speculation as to how the company might shape our lives in the future. However, their track record of shaping the present shows us why it’s worth shooting for the moon.

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