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Champions of Design: Google

From search-engine to all-powerful tech developer and media-owner, Google has retained its core identity.

So central has Google become to the lives of millions of people around the globe that it’s hard to believe that anyone born at the same time as the company was founded still hasn’t left school. Sergey Brin and Larry Page – both Stanford University computer science graduate students – began their groundbreaking collaboration in January 1996 and formed the company in September 1998, having been interested initially only in selling the idea.

Since then Google has developed at a spectacular rate, with every week seemingly bringing fresh announcements of acquisitions and technological breakthroughs. The news that Google’s Glass (it’s optical head-mounted display) will be able to register the wearer’s emotional reaction to different ads, with the data instantly fed back to the relevant companies, seems to be taking us nearer the reality of Minority Report’s science fiction sooner than anyone imagined possible. However, the same device is also being developed to help with pioneering work in the field of autism.

The company’s market dominance brings into sharp focus the similarly ambiguous bargain we have struck with Google regarding our privacy. We love the simplicity and speed with which it delivers the unimaginably vast information of the web and, in return, volunteer some of our most personal information to this vast organisation.

Its reach is staggering. From the logistical phenom­enon of Google Street View to the now commonplace technology of Google Earth, the company has transformed the way we see our world. Google Books, meanwhile, has – not without controversy – scanned over 30m books, bearing out the company’s initial mission statement to "organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful". Its core search engine figures aren’t too shabby either: every day, 1m servers worldwide facilitate 1bn search requests.

Its profits are similarly mind-boggling. Initially Brin and Page were opposed to selling advertising, but they soon saw its value. In 2011 Google generated $37.9bn revenue, 96% of which came from advertising. Some business analysts go so far as to say the best way to understand the company is as a means to sell advertising.

Unifying the look of this multi-faceted, Earth-straddling company (don’t forget its Chrome browser and Android mobile OS) is its simple, six-lettered, four-colour logo, sitting in the centre of its famously sparse homepage. The logo, designed by graphic artist Ruth Kedar, has proved so durable that the company has, from its earliest days, been able to bring out numerous "Google doodles", which vary the basic theme to mark a relevant celebration or anniversary and are, of themselves, miniature masterpieces of creativity.

The plot of one episode of the award-winning Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd revolved around the idea that, if you type the word "Google" into the Google search engine, you will break the internet. The pace of change in computing science is relentless, but at the moment, it seems that there’s about as much chance of that being true as there is of anything halting Google’s irresistible rise.

Did you know?

Google is at the forefront of research into driverless cars. In 2012 it posted a video on YouTube (which it owns) showing Steve Mahan, who is 95% blind, making a journey in a self-driving Toyota Prius to his local Taco Bell and dry cleaners. The company’s first driverless car crash occurred in 2011, but Google insisted the car was being driven manually at the time.

While still in its research stage, Google was known as BackRub, a reference to the backlink technology it employed to regulate site importance. Google itself is a misspelling of the word Googol, the mathematical term used for 1 followed by 100 zeros.

In 1999, George Bell, the then-chief executive of Excite, one of the original internet portals, had the chance to buy Google for $750,000, but declined the offer. Google’s valuation recently passed $300bn for the first time.

When Google launched its Initial Public Offering in August 2004, it still managed to insert some subtle geek humour into the otherwise serious financial process.

It claimed in a press release that it hoped to raise $2,718,281,828 – without mentioning that the figure represented the first 10 digits of the mathematical constant e.

New employees at Google – generally known as Nooglers – used to wear a brightly coloured cap with a propeller on top.

These days, however, new arrivals are given a yellow smiley balloon and nameplate.

Sector round-up

AltaVista
Although the numbers seem puny by comparison with today, the search engine was considered a huge success for the first years of its existence.

Launched in 1995, within two years AltaVista was attracting $50m of sponsorship, but a change of strategy to make it a web portal, rather than search engine, proved disastrous. It was closed down in July this year.

Yahoo!
Like Google, Yahoo! was created by a pair of Stanford graduate students, Jerry Yang and David Filo. It originally operated under the rather unwieldy name David and Jerry’s Guide To The World Wide Web.

Yahoo!’s profile in the UK would suggest that it is all but moribund; nonetheless, it still has a significant presence in the US and its recent purchase of microblogging site and social network Tumblr for $1.1bn suggests that, despite a catalogue of difficulties, it remains a player.

AOL
AOL (America Online) is probably best known for its disastrous merger with Time Warner, buying Bebo for $815m in 2008 and being the company that would bombard us with CDs of its software.

At one point, half the CDs in the world were said to bear the AOL logo.

Yet it survives and, as owner of media businesses like The Huffington Post and Moviefone, still has a presence, albeit one unlikely to give Google’s bosses sleepless nights.

Ask Jeeves
Like Yahoo!, Ask Jeeves (or Ask.com as it’s known in the US, Jeeves having had his Green Card rescinded in 2006) has a higher profile in the US than over here, but it’s another company that has, in effect, been neutered by Google.

These days Ask operates as a question-and-answer site without a search-engine function.

Siri
Dubbed "an intelligent personal assistant" and "knowledge navigator", Siri was bought by Apple in 2010 and has been a function on its most recent iPad and iPhone models.

Industry analysts have argued that Siri is Apple’s entry point into the search-engine business, although describing it as a "Google-killer" seems premature.

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More from this series

Read more about our champions of design, including Chupa Chups, Perrier, Monocle and Paul Smith. Download the book here