Google evolves from mundane searches to digital behemoth

— -- It doesn't seem possible, really, but just over 10 years ago a company with a funny sounding name filed for incorporation, and in doing so changed the world. That company, Google, is now on the verge of adolescence — but are we ready for teen rebellion?

In Planet Google, Randall Stross tries to answer that question. Stross, author of The Wizard of Menlo Park, and eBoys, writes the "Digital Domain" column for The New York Times, and is a business professor at San Jose State University.

Planet Google tells the story of Google's recent history — the post-IPO years in which Google is no longer David but a tech Goliath that acquires start-ups and sometimes trips over itself. It's a company that solved the problem of searching for text-based Web pages and is now expanding into organizing much of the world's information, from books to online video to news. It's Google 2.0, if you will.

Today's Google has less sheen than it did in previous years. With size and power, the ambitious upstart has become what some observers see as a creepy overzealous competitor.

Stross captures this sense early in Planet Google, when he recalls Google's CEO Eric Schmidt talking in 2007 about Google's potential for omniscience. Schmidt said that the company's ultimate goal was to provide Google's algorithm — a set of rules for determining search results or answers to questions — with enough personal detail about visitors that it would provide a customized answer to questions.

Stross spends considerable space telling the stories behind four Google components:

•Google Books (a project to digitize books and make their contents searchable).

•Google News (an online news aggregator that organizes news stories based on pre-programmed algorithms, and not the judgment of editors).

•Google Earth (a global mapping system).

•YouTube (the user-run video website).

Stross explains the basics behind Google's search technology: It determines relevant search results based on a series of rules, such as which and how many other websites link to a given page and what keywords are associated with the link.

The book reveals Google's efforts to build an accurate translation service by comparing massive quantities of identical texts from different languages.

"Using multilingual documents prepared by the United Nations as the training corpus," writes Stross, "Google fed its algorithm 200 billion words and let the software figure out matching patterns between pairs of languages. The results were revelatory.

"Without knowing anything at all about Chinese or Arabic morphology, semantics, or syntax, Google's English-speaking programmers came up with a self-teaching algorithm that could produce accurate, and sometimes astoundingly fluid, translations."

Planet Google is hardly the first book about the iconic company. Its exploits have been well documented in The Search (2005) by John Battelle and The Google Story (2005) by David Vise and Mark Malseed.

Stross spends less time covering the well-trodden ground of Google's founding — the garage-to-Silicon Valley pop-culture narrative of founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin who became billionaires when the company went public. Instead, Stross focuses on more recent developments.

But he falls short of delivering a satisfying glimpse of the future that could have elevated the book above simple exposition. After all, the technologies Google is dabbling with — such as self-learning networks, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing — may well lead our society in dramatically new directions.

Google's efforts to organize the world's information represents a window on what stands before us. While it may be interesting to read about how Google Books, Google Earth and YouTube got started in the first decade of the 21st Century, even bigger developments are taking shape.

As Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired Magazine, is fond of saying: by 2040, the world's network of computers and other technology will exceed the processing power of the sum of all living human minds.

At this point in technological history, any book about Google that doesn't add to the discussion of what Kelly calls The One Machine, is limiting itself — no matter how good the book is — to reinforcing the stereotype that old media simply don't get it.

Russ Juskalian is a freelance writer based in New York