RealTime IT News

Google: Resistance is Futile

Reporter's Notebook: The late, great science fiction writer Frank Herbert wrote a book for neophyte computer users in the 1980s called Without Me You're Nothing. The title referred to the fact that, for all its technical smarts, a personal computer needed a human operator to accomplish anything.

Point taken.

But in the 21st century it's the Internet that drives much of what we use a PC for. So instead of Herbert's title for today's computer users, how about Without Us You're Nothing?

The "you're" in this case refers to Google and its competitors in the search engine game.

Google has always been an innovative company that has revolutionized the way we use the Internet and what some still call "personal computing."

But Google's never been about personal computing in the classic "one-person, one-computer" sense; it's always been about "collective computing."

From the very first version of its search engine, Google has relied on algorithms that measure where the masses go to find their information online.

The more popular sites in specific areas earn higher results rankings. So the more users participate, the more information Google, Yahoo, MSN and other search engines have to work with.

"Google from its inception was based on the intelligence and hard work of people around the world adding information and structure," Google co-founder Larry Page said at a recent media event.

But Google has been criticized for the lofty claims of its founders that one of its core principles is to "do no evil."

I'm not here to say collective computing is bad or evil, but it does represent a significant next step with implications I'm not sure most folks have fully grasped.

When soon-to-be Harvard dropout Bill Gates saw a personal computer kit on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine in the 1970s, he went gaga. Here was a chance to own your own computer and not have to rely on large time-sharing systems for a few hours of computer use at a terminal. He and Paul Allen went on to found Microsoft.

A similar drive hit a young engineer in Silicon Valley named Steve Wozniak who liked the idea of building his own computer that could fit on a desktop. With his partner Steve Jobs, Apple Computer was born.

But the whole point of Personal Computing 1.0 was to free users from having to rely on big systems, which monitored your usage and limited what you could do.

Fast-forward 30 years and we are relying on big systems to dish out the Web sites we want to see and monitoring our use in exchange for such "benefits" as context-sensitive ads.

"Certainly Google's core has been about collecting information and then getting the relevant information back to users," said David Card, senior analyst with JupiterResearch.

"Bill Gates has been talking about 'information at your fingertips' for many years, and we had client/server systems and Sun from its start talking about the network is the computer," said Card.

"But it is ironic that we seem to be going from personal computing, which freed users from time-sharing systems, and now we're seeing the emergence of grid computing and other models that keep us more connected."

Card added the connected computing model has too much going for it to ignore.

"I believe in personal computing, but I know my data is probably safest on the cloud, in some secure remote server, where it's also more easily accessible. There's a real value in being connected."

Google's latest offering, Google Co-op, hopes to leverage the expertise of its expanding community of users.

The idea behind the new feature, which is in beta, is to get individuals, businesses and other organizations to label Web pages relevant to their areas of expertise.

Users who then subscribe to a provider's content get more relevant search results based on the labels.

Google cites a doctor using Co-op could label what he's identified as the best Web pages about arthritis. Anyone who subscribes to that doctor's information will get those Web pages at the top of their results when searching for information on arthritis.

"It's similar to a food cooperative with a group of people helping each other out," said Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google.

Clearly there are many benefits to our increasing connectivity. But there is also the potential for privacy abuses.

Sun chairman Scott McNealy was roundly criticized for his blunt comment back in 1999 that "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

But McNealy hit dangerously close to the truth.

Google's dragging the rest of the online industry into what will surely become standard operating procedure -- collecting records of who you are, where you go and what you do on the Internet.

For better or worse, Google's vision has always been about the benefits of collective computing. What's next?

CEO Eric Schmidt recently told a group of reporters that his dream search engine would "tell me what I should be typing."

Let's hope it doesn't come to that.