am 14. April 2011
Ever since its inception, and in many cases even before it became incorporated, Google has been referred to mainly in the superlatives. The briskness with which it became the dominant player in online search, the sheer size of its operations and the infrastructure, the incredibly short time within which it became one of the largest companies in terms of market capitalization - all of these are the stuff of legends. It is unsurprising then that Google would attract a high level of media attention, and there are literally hundreds of articles written about it every day. (I know this because I just did a quick search for Google in Google News.) Over the years there has also been no shortage of books on Google. However, in terms of the depth and breadth of its research, as well as the amount of first-hand information that it provides, Steven Levy's "In The Plex" stands in a category of its own.
In the minds of its founders and most of the early employees, Google is first and foremost a technology company. The business model of online advertising came about almost as an afterthought, and one continuously gets the sense that its purpose is to pay the bills so that Google geeks can have a free reign in pursuing their latest techie interest. This attitude is an integral part of Google's DNA, and any book that aims to provide the reader with a better sense of what Google is all about needs to get this point across. Unfortunately, there have been several books in recent years that were more concerned with all the intangible aspects of life in the age of Google and had almost completely missed this point. "In The Plex," I am happy to say, did not fall in that trap. Steven Levy comes across as an extremely competent and well-informed technology journalist who clearly relishes the opportunity to write about all the intricacies of Google's engineering prowess. In this respect as well, this is a quintessentially Google book. If Google were a person, this is probably what its autobiography would look like. Levy, who currently works for Wired magazine, literally embedded himself deep within Google and over the course of two years or so interviewed hundreds of Google employees. The result is a very comprehensive book on almost all aspects of Google's technology and business.
The book is very informative, probably more so than all the other books on Google out there combined. Even some of the already widely familiar stories about Google's origins and early years have been given new details. The book is also remarkable in that it provides a lot of information on some very specific technical details and innovation that Google has accomplished over the years. Granted, much of it is many years, or even over a decade, old, but for the longest time Google has been extremely cagey about revealing any of that information to the wider audience. The fact that most of the information in this book has been obtained directly from Googlers, including the notoriously secretive founding duo, may signal that Google has come to the point where it has become confident in its own strength and comfortable with the idea that revealing certain information about itself will not jeopardize its business model.
I relished the opportunity to find out more about some of the Google's early "magical" features and projects. For instance, even though I had been relying on it for years, I finally understand how Google's famous spell-checker works. The reader can also learn more about the early days of Google's book scanning technology, the development of its massive data centers, the rise and fall of Google video, and several other Google projects and initiatives that have been undertaken over the years. All the stories are to the point and are not laden with techie jargon.
The part of the book that I liked the most was the one that dealt with Google's abortive efforts to gain a foothold in China. China's government is notorious for its online censorship and the very restrictive measures that it used when dealing with foreign companies on its soil. Nonetheless, it was very hard for Google to forgo the world's second largest economy (third at the time) and the world's most populous nation with well over billion and a half of inhabitants. Google tried to compromise and work out some sort of rapprochement with the Chinese government, but this attitude was so antithetical to almost all of Google's core beliefs and business practices, that it was doomed from the get-go. One person that was particularly uncomfortable with the whole situation was Sergey Brin, who immigrated with his family to the United States from Soviet Union when he was just six years old. His family's experience with totalitarian regime shaped his thinking, and it proved decisive in the long run. What finally triggered Google's pullout from China was a Chinese government's hacking into Google Chine's servers and accessing of some highly classified information. The showdown with China reads almost like a spy thriller, and it highlights all the complex interconnections between business, technology, policy and politics that will dominate life in the twenty-first century.
This book's laser-like focus on Google is actually one of its weaknesses. Many of Google's main rivals are mentioned, but mostly just in passing. There is also very little discussion of Google within the larger online economy. All of this has an effect that it is sometimes hard to put many of the interesting facts and stories in this book within a larger context. Another one of the book's weaknesses is the lack of critical assessment and analysis of various products, projects, policy decisions, and inevitable failures. The author appears a bit too eager to present Google's version; any criticism remains of the mildest variety. One gets a sense that this book was thoroughly vetted by Google's PR department. I guess that is the price one has to pay for having unprecedented access to Google's own internal information. However, for the most part it was worth it.
One thing that did surprise me with this book was the very limited attention that it gave to some of the most headline-grabbing issues that currently grip Google: Android OS and social networking. Android is mentioned in one of the earlier chapters, but only in terms of its early development and the fallout that it engendered with Google's relations with Apple. Since those early days Android has become a major player in its own right, a very viable alternative to iPhone, and very likely the dominant mobile operating system in the near future. And as was hinted at one point in the book, it also brings in very healthy revenue. Social networking fares even worse than Android. It has been relegated to the epilogue, even though companies like Facebook and Twitter are threatening the very model of the web that is at the core of all of Google's services.
This is by far the most thorough and informative book on Google that is currently available. If you are interested in learning more about Google and are going to use just one source then this book should be it. It is well written, interesting, and free of puff pieces. It has a few shortcomings, but overall they are insignificant compared to the amount of material that one can glean from it.