Google hates clutter. If the company had a role in Neal Simon’s play The Odd Couple, Google would be the hyper-fastidious Felix Unger, not the sloppy Oscar Madison. So last December when Google engineers redesigned Google’s already sparse search page, there was no surprise when new the design was even sparser. What you now first see are the logo, search box, and a couple of buttons, surrounded by an ocean of white space. To get at the rest of what Google has to offer, you have to move your mouse. The links will then fade in.
The re-design was a classic “Googley” move, and how it was redesigned is instructive. Google engineers tested to observe how actual users would react. They tried some 10 variations of the fade-in. They worried that the whole idea of first hiding the links might slow users down, if only by milliseconds. Or maybe people would use the page even more efficiently than those in the control group. (Yes, there was a control group.) “And sure enough,” said a blog post describing the testing, “that was the trend we observed.”
This redesign exercise is a pretty good metaphor for the company itself. Even as Silicon Valley companies go, Google is highly engineering driven. The company prefers austere front-ends, with plenty of the functionality just below the surface. Among the hyperlinks that fade in on the search page is one that says “more.” The resulting submenu has another hyperlink: “even more.” Keep clicking and you’ll find specialized search tools; Web, PC and mobile applications; developer tools and APIs; online business solutions, website analysis programs and social network services.
Google is a search engine, but it is also an infrastructure company, an online advertising company, a promoter of Web standards, a developer and co-designer of hardware, an voice and mobile applications company, and a cloud computing company. Google has well-known services like Gmail and YouTube, which Google acquired in 2006 for $1.
Google is also behind two different open source operating systems that give two different visions of the future. The first, Android, imagines the future as a set of mobile applications. The second, Chrome OS, envisions the online world as a set of SaaS services?the only client app you need is a browser with a media player built in.
So where is Google headed? The company has stayed pretty true to its core mission statement to “organize the world’s information,” including yours. Secrets undoubtedly reside inside the Googleplex headquarters, Google’s surrounding campus, and its international offices, including those in Tokyo and Osaka. But compared with most companies, much of Google’s direction is out in the open. If Apple under Steve Jobs is the Silicon Valley’s archetypical secretive company, Google is the polar opposite: the company’s myriad blogs and lucidly written financial disclosures could keep you reading all day. That’s what I’ve been doing. The following is hardly a definitive analysis of Google’s direction, but it does gather some of the threads about where Google is going.
A quiet ascent into cloud computing
If Google were not so involved with search, you might think of it as a cloud computing company of a certain kind. Google has staked out a place in the cloud, but one that is distinct from others in the industry. Unlike Microsoft’s Windows Azure platform and Amazon Web Services, Google has put more of its promotional effort into SaaS, software-as-a-service, applications rather than emphasizing data storage and development tools. Perhaps for this reason, one of the best known cloud computing companies, Salesforce.
More recently, Google said it would launch an online store for third-party SaaS applications. Because many of these apps will be integrated with the Google Docs suite of office applications, the move will help Google better compete with Microsoft, whose client-based Office is firmly entrenched. The Wall Street Journal noted that Google sells its suite of SaaS applications to businesses for $50 a user per year, and has signed up some large companies, including Motorola and Genentech. “But many large corporations have been reluctant to migrate from Microsoft for reasons ranging from concerns about storing data online to complaints of missing features.”
Google is also taking on Microsoft’s dominance in office applications by acquiring DocVerse, which provides cloud-based collaboration for Microsoft Office documents. DocVerse was founded by two former Microsoft engineers, who will now come to work in the enemy camp. “Ironically, the acquisition gives Google the authority to let users access full-featured Office files in a Web-based environment before Microsoft does,” wrote CIO.
All of these SaaS projects help explain Chrome OS, and its open source development counterpart, the Chromium OS project. Both are notable in that they support just one client-based application: the browser. That’s a radical idea for an operating system. With Chrome OS, Google is assuming that most of the client-based applications you currently run will be replaced by their Web-based equivalent.
Google’s more conventional, though less publicized foray into cloud computing is the Google App Engine, an online Web application development and hosting service which debuted in April 2008. Google App Engine supports Python and Java, with a 10-application limit per administrative account, billing developers for network resources consumed. Echoing how Google bills its advertising customers, Google lets developers set a maximum daily “budget” to pay for outgoing and incoming bandwidth, CPU time, data storage, and email recipients. For applications that consume below a fixed threshold, the price is free.