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Thursday, May 13, 2004

Google in the Catbird Seat

[This article will appear in the May 2004 issue of AEC Automation Newsletter, of which I am Editor-in-Chief.]

Google in the Catbird Seat
By Randall S. Newton
I closed last month’s Industry Wrap-Up column promising to explain why I think Google is Microsoft’s “only serious competition.” And that was before they (finally) announced their plans to become a publicly held company. But as I wrote, I found I had more to say than could fit as an item in the Industry Wrap-Up.

Many articles have been written about Linux and the Open Source movement as a major threat to Microsoft’s existing operating system hegemony. The basic premise is true, but Open Source is not (or should not) be the only competitive threat on Microsoft’s radar. Google is the one software company that should be keeping Microsoft executives awake at night.

It took Microsoft 15 years to hit $1 billion in annual sales (it was the first software company to do so). Google hit $961.8 million in 2003, its fifth year in business, and will blow by the $1 billion mark this year. To reach $1 billion in annual sales, Microsoft had to develop and sell hundreds of products (including books and hardware), supported by thousands of employees. Google has barely one thousand employees and receives 95 percent of its revenue from the tiny ads that accompany its search results. (To avoid going public earlier, Google split into two companies. When both reached 500 employees this year, it was one of the tipping points that forced the company to go public.)

Four Key Assets
Google has four core technology assets; understanding them is key to appreciating what Google is today and what Google will become. They are:

· Hardware—Google runs the largest cluster-computer in existence, estimated to be around 100,000 CPU’s (Google won’t say exactly how many).
· Software—The Google File System (also dubbed by some as GoogOS—the Google Operating System) is a scalable distributed file system for large distributed data-intensive applications. It is capable of serving thousands of queries a second.
· Data—Google stores a copy of every Web page it tracks. Google tracks how the information in those pages is sought out. It now has terabytes of Web data and gigabytes of usage data at its disposal. Google owns the world’s most complete map of the Web.
· Programmability—The Google API (Application Programming Interface) is openly published. A variety of interesting projects from independent programmers have already surfaced, with many more on the way.

Each one of these assets is formidable; taken together, the synergy they bring Google is amazing. Today Google offers a search engine, a price comparison service, a social networking service, personal Web publishing, and Web-based email. They are ramping up local search, whereby the search engine can tell you the three closest places to order pizza. Or the three closest construction firms doing $50 million in new projects.

Today’s Google has found many ways to expand what “search” means. Consider the following not only as usage tips, but also as ways Google is working its way into your daily work flow. (Several of the tips below require the use of a delineating term; never put a space after the colon. And don’t use the quotation marks shown; as with most search engines, you only use quotation marks to specify an exact phrase.)

· Google can track your FedEx or UPS shipments—use the tracking number as the search term.
· Start a search with “phonebook:” and you can look up the telephone number of any business or listed person.
· Calculate with Google: type in an equation (93*1794+2*100=) and click Search to see the answer.
· Convert units of measurement: “tablespoons in a quart,” for example, or “millimeters in a yard.”
· Google is a stock ticker. Type in ADSK or INGR, for example, to see a link to the current Autodesk or Intergraph stock price, with relevant graphs, updated financial news and other related information.
· Need a map? Type in an area code, like 509, to see a MapQuest map of the area.
· Don’t have a bar code scanner? Type in a UPC bar code number, such as “3748030251,” to see the description of the product you’ve just “scanned in” (and in this case, to see what I’m snacking on as I write).
· Check out a car: type in a VIN (vehicle identification number, which is etched onto a plate, usually on the door frame, of every car), like “JH4NA1157MT001832,” to find out the car’s year, make and model.
· Search for deals: try www.google.com/froogle.
This list just scratches the surface; visit www.google.com/help for a complete guide to using Google.

Bargain-basement Supercomputer
Most supercomputers are built for computation; they process massive amounts of data with prodigious algorithms for a select clientele. They are expensive to acquire and to operate. Google’s supercomputer is built on the cheap by linking together thousands of off-the-shelf servers. The Google cluster-computer is built more for data management than for computation. Google buys servers by the hundreds, and if they stop running, they may sit on the rack for weeks before being replaced—it’s part of the plan, since fewer technicians are required for system maintenance. Redundancy is the first order of business for the Google File System. It stores all data in multiple locations; the loss of any one server is of no consequence.

What Google now does for the World Wide Web, it can just as easily do for your personal information—if you let it. Right now Google is beta-testing a new email service called Gmail. Each account is given a whopping 1-gigabyte of room for storage. Instead of the traditional files-in-folders metaphor, Gmail lets users assign topic names to messages. To find a specific message, do a search. I’ve got an account (randall.newton@gmail.com) and so far I find it a refreshing alternative to typical email user interfaces. Ask me again when I have a thousand messages in it (like I do right now in my Microsoft Outlook inbox.) To make Gmail pay its way, Google displays two or three small advertisements on the side of the screen, automatically selected by the GoogOS as relevant to your information.
So why does all of this add up to Microsoft’s worst nightmare? Because search is in its infancy as a product and a service. On a macro level, here’s what Google has achieved to date:

· It has built an automated advertising system that performs hundreds of millions of auctions per day to determine the placement and prices of advertisements appearing both on the Google search result pages and the pages of thousands of independent Web sites who contract with Google Adsense.
· It has built the Google File System.
· It has designed a fully automated news system (http://news.google.com) that without aid of humans, reports the top news as found on thousands of news sites worldwide.
· It has created a searchable archive of millions of catalog pages by scanning printed catalogs.
· It has a built-in spelling checker that is the precursor to further work on processing the nuance of meaning.
· It is building a public email system that will scale to serve millions.

If the Google File System can scale to hold and manage the contents of the Web, it can do the same for your daily work. All you would need is a thin client connection with good bandwidth, and Google could become your Application Service Provider and your storage network.

At a Web page recruiting engineering to work for Google, it says, “Google’s mission: organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” Note that it says “the world’s information,” not “the Web’s.” The focus at Google is not on building single-purpose applications. Google has built a massive, general-purpose supercomputer that can operate on the scale of the Web. Noted industry writer and publisher Tim O’Reilly speculates that the World Wide Web is starting to transform into “the emergent Internet operating system.” Google seems to be heading in this direction already, all by itself. Google has mastered the economies of scale as they apply to computing on Web scale. Now all it needs to do is expand its market.

In 1995, when Netscape went public with a jaw-dropping IPO, the common question on everybody’s lips was, “Who needs Windows?” Microsoft took that question seriously, and answered it by destroying Netscape as a competitive force. Given Google’s accomplishments to date, and their phenomenal S-curve revenue chart, how tough would it be for Google to team up with a Linux developer and a hardware vendor to offer a Google PC? It could use a PC-specific version of the Google File System and Open Source office applications (already mature enough to challenge Microsoft Office for most tasks). A Google PC could use space on Google for storage as well as the local hard drive, and it would be easy to share documents with others. It won’t replace your design workstation, yet, but such an alternative to the Windows monopoly would reshape personal computing in a way nothing has since the launch of the Web.

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