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Google’s numbers will only get better

How hot is Google? Google was named originally in 1998 for the ‘googol,’ which represents the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. Little did then-Stanford University grad students Larry Page and Sergey Brin realize that someday their personal fortunes might be considered almost as vast. A few wild-eyed financial analysts foresee Google someday overtaking Microsoft and maybe even Wal-Mart. Let me explain why they could be right. We are far from the end-game of Internet-centric innovation. While we wait on those breakthroughs, two very simple mechanisms have revolutionized human communication and knowledge management. The first is the humble hypertext ‘link.’ Links relate two bits of information to one another. These enable non-programmers to form and follow those links and, however crudely, to add value by what we choose to link. Armed with nothing more, hundreds of millions of unpaid workers are building a ‘web’ of knowledge and opinion daily that long ago obliterated old-fashioned encyclopedias. This creates a rather large problem of its own. How does one find a target of personal interest within the blizzard of linked bits? Enter search. Or, should I say, Google? Search engines have been vital to the Web since its beginning, but the venture capitalists found them unspeakably boring as business models. Then, Google smashed through the ‘search is plumbing’ metaphor to join Yahoo, eBay and Amazon as the sexiest superstars of the Internet. Nothing is forever (remember Netscape?) but Google has effectively branded the very concept of ‘search.’ Google that if you can. While no one was looking closely, Google has not only assembled the world’s largest database but also refined ever more sophisticated methods to mine that database. After all, searching algorithms maintain their cheerful energy whether helping you find a recipe for tonight’s meal from an amateur cook in Bombay or matching you to a business who can sell you a book of recipes. This latter begins to look interesting as a revenue-generating machine, no? Now, what if Google were to offer Web-based e-mail with essentially unlimited storage and the ability for users to search their email as conveniently as the entire Web, bringing into that experience the same level of matching between advertisers and consumers found on the Web? Enter Google Mail. The revolution coming in e-mail deserves a column all to itself. Should Microsoft be quaking in its enormous boots at this still-remote corporate upstart? Well, no and yes. Microsoft swallowed the desktop alive with its brilliant marketing and execution of Windows more than a decade ago. Software on the desktop isn’t going away. Microsoft has already invested colossal sums of money in a next-generation operating system (code-named Longhorn) that will integrate more cleverly by far with the Internet. Still, desktop computers have become hideously boring commodity objects. Digital cameras, cell phones and iPods make today’s PC look like yesterday’s slide rule. There is a warning (and an opportunity) there, not only for Microsoft but for business worldwide. Nearly all that is interesting to you, me and our children takes place in the connectivity between computers that is the Internet. While Google doesn’t yet ‘own’ that virtual desktop, it is the largest lessee. These battles between technical giants do matter. We once thought Microsoft was just about software until we realized the world itself was being reshaped by Bill Gates and friends. We may think Google is just about search, but it isn’t. It’s about the organization of knowledge worldwide. How valuable is that, do you reckon, to your business, to your family, to Spokane?