13 gennaio 2006

St Lawrence of Google

Il noto settimanale inglese The Economist ha pubblicato ieri un articolo su Google dal taglio piuttosto ironico, come spesso solo lo spirito inglese sa essere.

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Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, has always wanted to change the world. He is well on his way

DOES Larry Page ever get vertigo when contemplating his life and future? After all, Mr Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google, the world's most popular internet search engine, can legitimately claim to have caused an information and media revolution. At 32, they are already worth far more than $10 billion each and fly around in their own Boeing 767. Bill Gates fears them; others in the industry admire or envy them, and some seem to consider them capable of anything. Expectations are dizzyingly high.

“It's not a good thing to think about,” said Mr Page behind the stage after his keynote address in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week. But if he must ponder his company's achievements and power, he says in his halting, thoughtful voice, it gives him an even greater “sense of responsibility” to make the world a better place. “The reason your question doesn't make sense”, adds Eric Schmidt, the comparative veteran who is Google's chief executive and jointly runs the company with the founders, “is that he's too busy” to have vertigo. Busy, that is, changing the world.
That self-avowed goal causes a great deal of confusion. For instance, for the entire week leading up to his Las Vegas speech, much of the world's press decided to believe a rumour that Mr Page would announce a new, cheap computer powered by Google software (thus, went the logic, finally contesting Microsoft's reign over operating systems). Mr Page announced nothing of the sort. Yes, Google will “support” an existing (and well-known) project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce a laptop for the poor, but so will many companies, and who wouldn't? At one point, Mr Page mocked such inflated expectations by “announcing” Google Fastfood, a button in car dashboards that delivers instantaneous hamburgers.

Mr Page used much of his speech to play the part of visionary geek-in-chief, dressed in a white lab coat and standing on spring-heeled sneakers, exhorting the 2,500 exhibitors at the CES to agree on industry standards and to make their gadgets less off-putting. He did also announce some intriguing new products—such as an expansion of Google Video, a download service that allows anybody to sell videos—thus continuing a seemingly endless dribble of product launches that cumulatively suggest astonishing ambition. Not only is Google already pursuing its stated goal to “organise all the world's information” (not just web pages) by scanning library books to make them searchable, by bringing local information to mobile phones and people on the go, and so forth; it is also dabbling in side projects such as providing free wireless internet access to its home town in Silicon Valley, and perhaps to San Francisco and beyond.

Mr Page's ambition started early. When he was 12, he read a biography of Nikola Tesla, a prolific inventor who never got credit for much, but is now a hero among geeks. Mr Page decided that he would be different: a great inventor and an acknowledged world-changer to boot. As the son of a computer-science professor, he channelled his energy into technology. By the time he was in college, Mr Page was building working inkjet printers out of Lego bricks—probably just to show that he could. A few years later, while doing his doctoral thesis at Stanford, Mr Page thought up his “PageRank” system of ranking web pages by relevance, the foundation of Google's search engine. Teaming up with his intellectual soul mate, the Russian-born and mathematically gifted Mr Brin, Mr Page went “on leave” from his research and founded Google.

Mr Page was chief executive, until the founders were advised that they needed a more experienced adult at the helm: hence the arrival of Mr Schmidt, formerly the boss of Novell, a software firm. But Google stayed very much its founders' creation. It was Mr Page who wrote the letter—now legendary—in Google's regulatory filings for its stockmarket listing that announced the company motto: “Don't be evil”. Despite rapid growth—from about 200 employees when Mr Page was chief executive to nearly 5,000 now—Google has lost none of its puritanical fanaticism.

This zeal is starting to annoy some people. One visitor to the company's “Googleplex” in Silicon Valley “felt as if I were in the company of missionaries”. A consequence of the theory that Google is aiming to run the world could be that “Google may be less liked in the industry than Microsoft inside 12 months,” says Pip Coburn, a technology analyst. Bloggers have started accusing Google of hubris and arrogance. Paul Saffo at Silicon Valley's Institute for the Future says that “Google is a religion posing as a company.”

Playing God
If Google is a religion, what is its God? It would have to be The Algorithm. Faith in the possibility of an omniscient and omnipotent algorithm appears to be what Messrs Page and Brin have in common. It's “in their DNA,” says Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist famous for investing early in both Yahoo! and Google. Whereas Yahoo! was started by two Stanford students who turned a hobby into a business, Google was started by two Stanford students who turned an intellectual obsession into a quest, says Mr Moritz. And what is that quest? Merely upstaging Microsoft would be almost banal. “We're not trying to build a better operating system,” says Mr Schmidt (although that will not kill the rumour). Part of the plan is certainly “organising the world's information”. But some people think they detect an even more grandiose design. Google is already working on a massive and global computing grid. Eventually, says Mr Saffo, “they're trying to build the machine that will pass the Turing test”—in other words, an artificial intelligence that can pass as a human in written conversations. Wisely or not, Google wants to be a new sort of deus ex machina.