Google at 15: the early years
As Larry Page and Sergei Brin celebrate Google’s 15-year existence this month, even they must be pinching themselves at the thought of just how far their company has come.
Google permeates our everyday digital lives in a way many thought unimaginable, even when its humble web indexing algorithm became a verb used in common speech around a decade ago.
This is us, but the format will be familiar to many: before 10am this morning we’d checked Gmail, watched a YouTube clip, accessed a Google Drive document, checked the location of a gig venue on Google Maps, amended our Google Calendar and puts some last-minute research into this very article using Google Search.
All on a tablet running, you guessed it, the Google Android OS.
Make no mistake, Google as we know it today is arguably the world’s most important and influential company. How, after just 15 years, did it reach such stratospheric heights? Grab a slice of birthday cake and relax as we explain.
When Sergei met Larry
It all started back in 1995 when prospective Stanford University PhD student Sergei Brin encountered computer science scholar Larry Brin on a campus visit. According to Google’s own website, the pair fondly recall how they disagreed about practically everything they discussed that day.
In 1996 the pair began collaborating on Page’s ‘BackRub’ search engine, which by August that year had indexed 75 million URLs and eventually became too big for Stanford’s servers to handle.
BackRub became Google (a play on the mathematical term Googol meaning 1 and 100 zeros), the pair garnered some investment, moved into a friend’s garage and, on September 4 1998, the company was officially incorporated in California.
The company’s name was inspired by its desire to organise the infinity of the web in a logical way and from an early stage it seemed Sergei and Larry’s secretive algorithms had a leg up on the competition.
By the end of 1999 it had gained massive investment from Sequoia Capital, moved to Mountain View, got a dog and hired a chef. A year later it was pulling April fools pranks, launching in 10 new languages and becoming Yahoo’s default search provider.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the company began selling ads based around search keywords. It was the fruitfulness of this venture – where competitors floundered – that gave Google the financial clout to expand beyond search.
Broadening its scope and going public
The hire of Eric Schmidt as chairman and then CEO of the company in 2001, allowed Page and Brin to focus their attentions on broadening the company’s product offerings. By this time, Google Search was indexing over 3 billion pages on the web and had established dominance. ‘Google it’ was slowly becoming the default term for search.
So the company launched Google News, an aggregator that initially served up 4,000 news sources, and Google Labs, a place where web users could try out experimental tech developed in the company’s R&D department like voice controlled search, keyboard shortcuts and browser toolbars.
In 2003, it acquired Pyra Labs, the creators of Blogger. In 2004, it launched Gmail, powered by Google Search and bought Keyhole, which would eventually become Google Earth.
A year later it launched Google Maps, soon adding satellite imagery and step-by-step directions, as well as Gtalk and the now dearly departed RSS reader Google Reader. Calendar, Picasa and Documents (following the acquisition of web-based word processing firm Writely) arrived in 2006, Street View arrived to complement Google Maps in 2007 and the Chrome web browser made its debut in 2008.
Google’s suite of apps was growing
Naturally, a hugely significant landmark was its heavily-hyped stock market floatation in 2004, by which time the company had commandeered 85 per cent of all web searches.
With its IPO Google secured a value of $ 27 billion, making Larry and Sergei very rich men indeed. Believe it or not, some thought the company had been overvalued based on Yahoo and Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to build rival search engines.
With the cash flowing in from Wall Street in 2006, Google moved for its largest acquisition to date by snapping up the YouTube video-sharing site for $ 1.65 billion in stock and began selling ads on videos.
Since then, Google has continued to cherry pick companies and start-ups with fervent regularity. Other than last year it averaged one acquisition a week, with notable examples including Motorola’s mobile unit ($ 12.5 billion), smartwatch manufacturer WIMM and community sourced navigation application Waze for the small matter of $ 1.3 billion.
Getting all its ducks in a row on the web allowed Google to line-up and assault on the mobile world with the Android operating system, which has undoubtedly proved to be the company’s biggest success outside of search.
Set up in 2003 by Andy Rubin and co, Android was acquired by Google in 2005 and pitched as an open source operating system for a new breed of smartphone devices.
It’d be another three years before the first devices would emerge (we’ll always have a soft spot for the HTC T-Mobile G1 and especially the follow up HTC Hero), setting the industry on a path to the Android / iOS duopoly as Symbian, Windows Phone and BlackBerry fell by the wayside.
The arrival of Android and its subsequent success through eager manufacturers like HTC, Motorola, Samsung and LG may have ruined Google’s cosy relationship with Apple – Steve Jobs threatened to go "thermonuclear" on Android and accusing Google of "wholesale ripping off" iOS – but by this point it didn’t matter.
Google had made itself indispensable to iPhone users, while regular dessert-themed software updates (you’ll see statues of each strewn across the front lawn at Mountain View) continued to push Android towards fulfilling its potential. Custom skins from its manufacturing partners also provided innovative new twists and nuances.
During the early days of the Android era, Google launched its first piece of branded hardware, the Nexus One made by HTC.
The buggy device proved a bit of a disaster with Google selling through its own fledgling store, rather than through networks, meaning limited customer support for buyers. Google learned a valuable lesson and devices like the Nexus 4 smartphone and Nexus 7 tablets have proved huge hits.
Smartphone dominance (globally, it currently boasts around 80 per cent of the market) and its increasing tablet share has allowed Google to push itself as an all-things-to-all-people entertainment content company too.
There are even dedicated games consoles like Ouya and the Nvidia Shield running Android, while smartwatches, televisions and cameras boasting Google’s software are becoming more and more prominent.
Next up? Google Glass, but more on that later.
Google at 15: the failures and the future
However, it’s not like everything Google touches turns to gold. For every success the company has enjoyed down the years, there’s been a failure.
As much as Mountain View endeavours to make the Google+ social network the centre of its ecosystem, users just aren’t biting.
Its previous social experiments, Buzz and Wave were not well received. It also bought mobile social network Dodgeball in 2005, before the founder Dennis Crowley got frustrated with Google and left to start Foursquare.
Jaiku, a microblogging platform Google purchased in 2007, went the way of the dodo, while Google Latitude, a Google Maps tool that broadcasts the users location, was met with trepidation.
The iGoogle personalised homepage, which has been re-imagined on Android as Google Now, was another casualty on the web.
More recently, the cloud-based Chrome operating system, which features a suite of web apps and appears on Chromebook devices with little or no local storage, hasn’t been around quite long enough to be deemed a failure, but it can’t be deemed a success either.
Google TV, the company’s effort to bring its search expertise to the TV world, allowing live television and on-demand video platforms to be seamlessly integrated and joined by high-powered Android apps and games seemed like a good idea in principal. It somehow snatched failure from the jaws of success and now the tech world is simply waiting for Apple to jump on board.
Google’s company motto ‘Don’t Be Evil’ is a commitment to doing right by the world with the idea that it’ll prove beneficial from a business standpoint in the long run.
It’s a noble and rare ethos for a company with a market cap of around $ 300 billion, and although the world is probably a better place thanks to Google, the motto has left the company open to criticism when it is deemed to fall short.
Rivals and competition regulators in the EU and US have accused Google of manipulating its search results to ensure its own products, such as Google Play apps, are ranked higher than more popular iPhone apps.
And Google has been in trouble in multiple countries, including the UK, for harvesting date from public Wi-Fi networks while driving around in its Street View cars. This was dismissed by Google as a simple mistake.
Then there was a consolidation of 60 privacy policies from its various products (YouTube, Gmail, Chrome etc) into a single document in 2012 which didn’t give users the opportunity to opt out.
Google is also good at putting people in their place over their data. In August this year the company said its 425m Gmail users should have "no reasonable expectation" of privacy.
Then in same month, the company claimed UK privacy laws have "no jurisdiction" over the company, amid allegations it by-passed do-not-track software within Apple’s Safari browser in order to provide personalised ads for users.
And then there’s the small matter of tax. The incredibly small matter of tax, as far as Google is concerned. The company generated £11.5 billion in revenue from the UK between 2006 and 2011 and only paid £7m in corporation tax, claiming it pays the tax that is required of it by law.
And don’t get us started on Android KitKat.
‘Don’t Be Evil,’ is seems, has proved more of a guideline than a rule over the last 15 years.
However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. It’s been an incredible 15 years for Google, during which those two lads from Stanford University have genuinely changed the world.
But could the next 15 years be even bigger?
In the immediate future, the potential for Android to invade every sector of the tech industry is limitless, while the cheap Chromecast dongle, which allows mobile content to be beamed to a television is arguably a more exciting prospect than the rumoured Apple iTV set.
Google Glass is also in our sights, with the company’s futuristic, Android-packing AR specs expect to launch publicly in 2014.
The headgear, packing a camera and an eye-level display and powerful applications has the opportunity to kickstart a science fiction-style wearable technology revolution, which is also likely to feature the arrival of a Google smartwatch.
Glass is just one of the projects to emerge from the secretive Google X Labs. The unit, described as "moonshot factory of Peter Pans with PhDs kind of running amok" is plotting self-driving cars and balloon-powered Wi-Fi for remote areas as well as a wind power green energy project that could replace the need for massive steel turbines, by using specifically designed tethers.
Could Google save the world? Why don’t you just Google it?
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