Some twenty years ago following a kind invitation I attended the lecture of a management guru from abroad. During the entire session it was him who did most of the talking, while the audience was busily taking notes in the workbooks provided with the program. Questions could only be asked near the end of the presentation. A few hands were raised, and someone asked the lecturer how he could find his way around the world wide web, what kind of compass he was using for orientation. „I use search engines, primarily Google, that one is my favorite” he answered. I have already put away my pen, but the name was easy to remember. The next morning, when I sat down to my computer, I gave it a try: the text window came up, I typed in something I was currently interested in, and watched the hits pop up. I remember how stunned I was: what brilliant hits! That was when I became a Google user.
Today, typing something into the search bar is just as natural a thing to do as stirring one’s coffee with a spoon: you do not even notice it any more, do it almost as a habit and are only bothered when the computer happens not to be at hand. What is it that actually happened? In the world of marketing this phenomenon is called a lock-in. It is the situation when the user gets “captured”, having difficulties to switch from one product or service to another one. There are several types of lock-in: in the world of internet services it is enough for one service to be slightly better than the other: why should I be content with the less awesome one if I can have unhindered access to the better one, which, in addition, improves the more I use it because it gets to know me, figures me out and adapts? I was captured but the captivity was a pleasant one and I was not alone, the base of Google users was growing at an astounding rate. Google soon proved to be worth paying attention to not only because of the good search hits. At the end of the last century everybody was raving about the “new economy”. Interesting analyses appeared about the value of networks, the effects of variable costs close to zero, and the positive spiral that, amplified by the internet, raised winners to incredible heights. Hot debates were going on about old and new business models, the strategy of the rapidly multiplying internet ventures, and the illusion of being free of charge. Then came the sobering dotcom crisis when it turned out that the laws of economy still remained valid, though it is true that in the internet world they took interesting, in some cases extreme forms. Meanwhile Google became a case study, a favorite with business schools and MBA programs, exhibiting many peculiarities of the technology sector. Each field could find something exciting in it: strategists were interested in the competition, the growth and the conscious diversification; people in marketing in the distinct brand-building, finance people in the series of investments and the stock-exchange rates. HR people were intrigued by the personalities and style of the leaders, the way of recruitment and the authenticity of values, organizers by the loose form of organization and the agility, IT people by the search-algorithm and the fabulous server farm. Economists indulged in the monopolization, the regulations by the state and taxation, lawyers in the settlement of lawsuits – and we could go on at length enumerating the topics and viewpoints.
The firm Google has a past of two decades. Twenty years is a long time and luck is a fickle thing. Some technology firms survived these two crisis-stricken decades without being shaken too severely, of others even the name slipped into oblivion, though there was a big fuss made about them in their time. Google has maintained its predominant position. Today it is mostly mentioned as one of “the big five”, the FAANG: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet, the parent company of Google. This is a team of giants with an amazing amount of collective market value. Only those can keep their top positions who are able to change while staying the same. Google and the entire Alphabet group is just as creative, innovative and exciting and is a great subject for case study as twenty years ago. Viewpoints and topics change, of course. The firm used to be an exciting internet venture; today it is a technology giant, whose each and every move is sharply observed: everybody would like to know “what Google is up to”. What is it going to do with that immense amount of data it has collected about us? What can it achieve in the field of artificial intelligence? As a self-contained enterprise and as a member of the afore mentioned FAANG how does it compete with the similar, unrestrainable team of the Chinese, and what role does it play in the US’s strategy of technological world dominance?
In the modern world Google cannot be circumvented. If not for any other reason, it is worth thinking about it because it embodies one of the most exciting and most sensitive dilemma of society in our days: how can advanced information technology, the data boom and the everyday usefulness of artificial intelligence be reconciled with the dangers of total data collection and observation? How big a part of our private lives is worth sacrificing in the hope of better services in healthcare, education, research, administration, law enforcement, economy and other useful fields?
Twenty years is a long time. The present can be understood only by those who have a full overview of the enterprise’s entire path of development. The new book of Anna T. Kiss guides us through this really fascinating story. It is worth paying attention to each and every minute detail: success does not come for free, it can only be achieved by hard work.
(The Google Story by Kiss T. Anna, 2018. Budapest)