I spent most of today at an event called the Google Factory Tour–which involved neither a factory nor a tour, but turned out to be a worthwhile opportunity to hear a bunch of Google people talk about Google the company, Google the array of services, and Google the philosophy.
Tidbits gleaned and lessons learned:
1) The most immediately newsy news was today’s launch of the Google Personalized Homepage, a sort of “My Google” that lets you plunk recent Gmail messages, Google News, newsfeeds from providers such as the New York Times, weather, and other bits of information onto Google’s homepage. Personalization of this sort is a very old idea (My Yahoo has offered it for years), but Google’s take on it looks typically Google-esque: It’s simple, functional, and fast. Google’s lab page lets you try it right now.
2) In the long run, the most meaningful thing we heard about today may have been a Google Research translation technology that involves statistical analyses of texts that are available in multiple languages (such as United Nations documents). The examples that we saw included a couple of Arabic-to-English translations that were, apparently, utterly perfect. If this process reaches a point where it works as well for documents of all sorts, and is available to everybody, it would be one of the most profound things technology has done for us since…well, the search engine.
3) Google is readying a software package called Google Earth, which is a Google-ized version of Keyhole, an astounding 3D mapping program from a company that Google acquired. It includes some built-in searching features that let you do things like see driving directions rendered as photographic flyover animations of actual the route you’ll take.
4) Google is often compared to Microsoft these days, but one key difference between the companies is that Microsoft loves to talk about unreleased products (sometimes years before they show up), while Google is still rather secretive. Company execs almost apologized for showing us the unreleased Google Earth at all, and wouldn’t say when it might ship or what it might cost. (You can download a demo of the current version here.)
5) Lots of folks–including me–are sometimes mystified about why Google gets into some of the businesses it enters. For instance, its Picasa 2 is a fast and fun photo organizer, but it’s also free–and Google has never said why it got into the photo game, or how it hopes to turn a profit at it.
During the Factory Tour, we heard over and over of Google’s mission–“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”–and its 70/20/10 philosophy, which involves spending 70 percent of the company’s resources on its core business (search), 20 percent on closely related areas (such as news), and 10 percent on oddball projects. We also heard that the company was originally founded on cool search technology and a strong but vaguely-defined faith that search would eventually be a powerful way to make money.
Those elements–a desire to organize information, a yen to experiment, and a willingness to do neat things first and figure out how to make money with them later–go a long way towards explaning Picasa and other Google side projects.
6) Google leaves a service in beta as long as it has specific features it thinks the service needs, but which it hasn’t implemented yet. Which apparently means that the company still has designs on improving its Google Groups Usenet archive, which has been in beta for years.
7) The company says that it knows the Google Web Accelerator caused problems for some sites and users, but says they weren’t as bad as some critics claimed. It says that the experience taught it to test products more thoroughly before making them public. It also said that the Web Accelerator had unexpected trouble dealing with poorly-coded Web pages–which startled me a bit, because you’d think that if anyone knew that the Web is full of sloppy Web pages, it would be Google…
8) How many servers does it take to run Google? Nobody knowns–the company will only say that the last reported number was 10,000. (Some folks speculate that the current total could be as high as 100,000.)
9) It does say that it builds all those servers itself, which just may make it the biggest hardware do-it-yourselfer on the planet.
10) If you work at Google, you may end up with an untraditional job title…such as “Spam Cowboy and Porn Cookie Guy” (and that’s one employee, not two).