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Google on the Charles

Search-engine giant transports its Silicon Valley quirks to Cambridge office

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / May 13, 2008

CAMBRIDGE - When lava lamps, massage chairs, Gymnastik fitness balls, and kiwi smoothie bars pop up in formerly pedestrian Kendall Square office space, it can mean only one thing:

Google Inc. is growing in Greater Boston.

The giant Internet search company, which hired its first Beantown Googlers at the end of 2005 and had 50 people working out of the Cambridge Innovation Center just a year ago, has expanded to 175 local employees. They recently moved into new digs - 60,000 square feet on four floors at 5 Cambridge Center - done up in the company's extravagant, self-consciously quirky Silicon Valley style.

"We are committed to mirroring a lot of that culture here," Stephen Vinter, a veteran area software engineer and site director for Google's new Kendall Square office, told a group of wide-eyed visitors, including Governor Deval Patrick, at an open house yesterday.

In fact, the local office is working on several projects vital to Google's global strategy: building a platform where developers can write a myriad of applications for the mobile Internet; extending the reach of Google's video-sharing YouTube technology and analyzing the demographics of video viewers; compiling metadata and researching copyrights that could help convert books into searchable digital formats; and, letting more websites deploy social-networking features.

Android, the developers' platform that is key to Google's mobile Internet push, was designed in Massachusetts by a company Google acquired three years ago. Rich Miner, cofounder of Android, now works out of the Cambridge office as Google group manager for mobile platforms. The company last Friday awarded a $25,000 prize to four Massachusetts Institute of Technology undergraduates who were round one winners in the Android Developer Challenge for developing software that enables people to manage cellphone settings.

And the new Google Friend Connect, an Internet tool unveiled Monday that allows developers to embed social networking applications onto their own websites, emerged from the Google office in Cambridge. "It's not about making social networks more social," Vinter said. "It's about making the rest of the Web more social."

Vinter said his goal for the office "is to have a real diverse set of things to work on that can have a big impact." He said some of the Google engineers in Cambridge are immersed in infrastructure issues, such as Web crawling, that are invisible to consumers.

Google on the Charles, employing a mix of engineers and search-advertising salespeople, has many of the amenities found at the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., including a house band, open workstations decorated in Tiki jungle style, and microkitchens located within 150 feet of every employee.

But there are also some local touches: a mural of Fenway Park and the Boston skyline, reminiscent of the legendary New Yorker magazine cartoonist Saul Steinberg, and conference rooms named after the Big Dig, local beers, and movies filmed in Massachusetts.

The office is one of 10 in the United States, and 35 worldwide, that are distributed-engineering centers where Googlers from farflung locales team up on projects. It's part of a Google initiative to push more technology development out of Mountain View to other high-tech hubs, Vinter said. He said the Cambridge office, which has enough space to eventually double its staff, has become a "magnet" for engineers who want to tap into Boston's technology ecosystem. (About a third of its staffers are graduates of MIT, just across the street.)

Speaking briefly to Google staffers and guests yesterday, Governor Patrick said his administration stood ready to help the company expand here and to support homegrown technology start-ups in Kendall Square and across the state. "We know, all of us, about the amazing trajectory of this company," the governor said. "Google is part of an industry that's central to much of what we're known for."

Patrick later toured the Google office and engaged in a ping pong volley with Vinter at a table under the Boston mural. "The winner gets a tax break," a Googler watching the game said in jest.

On his tour, the governor seemed particularly interested in a technology support office called Tech Stop, manned by a Googler in a black T-shirt, where employees brought defective laptops.

"So let me get this straight," Patrick said to Vinter. "You can just walk into here and get anything you want fixed?"

"All you need is that Google badge," Vinter replied.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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