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Google’s Earth

How a search-engine startup became a global powerhouse - and why you should be worried about it

By Michael Fitzgerald
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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It wasn’t so long ago that all of Google fit into a two-car garage and a couple of spare rooms, with space enough for a few forlorn appliances and an unused ping-pong table. How did this tiny company with a quirky name become not only a verb but perhaps the most influential company on the planet in just a decade? Can it possibly achieve both its ambitious goals and its lofty ideals? These two questions frame “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It’’ by longtime New Yorker writer Ken Auletta. The answer to the first becomes vividly clear; the answer to the second haunts the author, and he tries to make it haunt us, with mixed success.

Google is something of a media obsession, in part because of its success, in part because many people in the media think it is killing their livelihoods. Besides the mounds of daily coverage it gets, at least a half dozen books on it have already been published. But Auletta typically defines the topics he writes about, not least because of the depth of access he gets. In this case, he spent 13 weeks over the course of two years in and around Google’s Silicon Valley digs, seeing its founders in action up close. Auletta delivers richly detailed looks at the lives of the company’s remarkable young creators, the brilliant, bouncy Sergey Brin and the laconic, intense Larry Page.

Those seeking a formula for raising children who will grow up to be billionaires will learn that “larryandsergey,’’ as the duo are known inside Google, both went to Montessori schools, had mothers (and fathers) with advanced scientific jobs, and intense family dinner debates. Auletta tells us, however, that the young Brin and Page “were - no other word will do - odd.’’

Odd, yes, but also brilliant, bold, and with a personal bond that seems jealousy free. They also share a spectacular ability to focus. Auletta notes that the founders drive their company “with a clarity of purpose that would be stunning if they were twice their age.’’

Despite the talent of the pair, Google was not an instant hit. The company had no business plan when it started and was not much of a profit machine for several years after, a source of real friction between larryandsergey and the top-notch venture capitalists they attracted. Two people even turned down opportunities to become the company’s chief executive before Eric Schmidt came on board in 2002.

The turning point happened in 2000 when Google, which had created one of the industry’s best search engines, developed its groundbreaking advertising program Adwords (or stole the idea; Auletta presents both cases). Success would eventually follow.

Auletta reminds us that while Google so far has avoided becoming ensnared in the schemes of media heavies like Viacom’s Sumner Redstone or News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, it is only 11 years old and won’t necessarily live happily ever after. He raises myriad threats that could damage or destroy Google, from wily old media competitors to rivals like Microsoft to government regulators.

But the threat that Auletta frets over most is whether Google will become its own worst enemy - and ours. Most of us use Google as a verb meaning to search for something on the Web. Auletta uses Googled as in “hammered’’ or “conquered.’’ The advertising business has been Googled. The software business is being Googled. So is book publishing. The telephone and cellphone businesses face Googling. In fact, we see how any company that functions as a middle man, be they retailer, travel service or what have you, could wake up one day and find themselves Googled. Then there is the prospect that we might all be Googled, as the firm gathers more and more information about us.

Currently, Google, whose motto is “don’t be evil,’’ is playing the fairy prince, but its growing sphere of influence is cause for alarm. This paradox preoccupies Auletta, who spends a good part of the book telling us what different important people think about Google’s potential for abusing its power. He himself cannot tell which way things will go, just as he cannot resolve whether Brin and Page are naïve or arrogant. Brilliant, yes. “Whether they are also wise is not as clear-cut,’’ he writes.

Through the intimate portraits painted in “Googled,’’ one comes to suspect that Auletta came to sincerely dislike Brin, Page, and Schmidt. For instance, he works in digs about larryandsergey, like their penchant for wandering off to kite surf during the day, in ways that feel catty. And he highlights Schmidt’s 2005 fit of temper when a CNET tech reporter published information about his personal life that she’d found via a Google search. An irate Schmidt banned Googlers from talking to CNET for two months. Fair game when discussing Google’s inherent threat to everyone’s privacy? Sure. But Auletta fails to note that Schmidt is far from the first CEO to react this way. For instance, the revered former head of IBM, Lou Gerstner, once froze out Fortune magazine for far longer than a mere two months over an article he disliked, a story Auletta must know.

For all its pluses, “Googled’’ does not always read crisply. Its details sometimes feel like clutter - must we hear of Page’s long-term relationship with a high-level Google employee nearly every time she is mentioned? In some places Auletta does a clumsy job of weaving in comments about Google today with events that happened years ago.

Readers without much interest in the media business will tire of Auletta’s extensive digressions on the subject. They’ll want to skip the first two chapters of the book’s final section and go directly to the last one. It summarizes all the challenges Google presents, the problems it faces, and then acknowledges that they are what-ifs that may never be.

These criticisms aside, “Googled’’ presents us with a comprehensive look at an immensely influential company yet to hit its prime.

Michael Fitzgerald, a freelance writer in Millis, can be reached at michael@mffitzgerald.com.

GOOGLED: The End of the World as We Know It
By Ken Auletta
Penguin, 384 pp., $27.95

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