Google: Why it's so much more than just a search engine

The technology firm's staff are allowed to spend one day a week indulging their own flights of inventive fancy. And the results, says Rhodri Marsden, could be extraordinary

Google is known as the pre-eminent web gateway; so synonymous with "search" that it's become a verb.

Its activities beyond the internet, however, receive less attention. In the week that Britain cancelled orders for new Nimrod spy planes, it's striking to learn, for example, that Google recently placed an order with a German company for spy drones equipped with night vision cameras.

Of course, Google has peaceful plans for its drones – it's thought they might enhance the web giant's mapping services, despite strident objections in some circles about privacy – but the move into the skies is evidence of a company growing way beyond its search and small ads roots. Having conquered the Earth, Google even has its sights on the heavens, with plans to launch mobile phones into space.

And there's no shortage of funds to invest in new projects. The company revealed buoyant revenues last week, with third-quarter earnings up 23 per cent to $7.3bn. In addition, its "20 per cent time" rule, which encourages creativity by allowing its workforce to spend one day per week developing their own projects, means there's no shortage of innovative ideas, either.

But with Google's expansion comes concern – particularly from US regulators, who are having to pay close attention to the way its various ambitions connect. When questions over its omnipresence are raised, Google responds by emphasising its philanthropy. Back in 2004, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin promised to channel 1 per cent of Google's equity and 1 per cent of profits into Google.org, a division operating under the banner of "technology-driven philanthropy".

Geothermal energy projects, analysis of the spread of influenza, "crisis response" to events in Chile, Haiti and the Deepwater oil disaster are all proudly announced on its site.

There's a complex PR game at work, says Whit Andrews, an analyst at Gartner. "Google is seeking, through funding of creative projects, to be able to respond to complaints and its enthusiasm for renewable energy is a good example." The company has recently invested in wind and solar energy projects. "Google needs a lot of power," says Andrews. "So for them, renewable energy projects make sense because they're taking care of their own interests. But it also puts them on the moral high ground; when someone asks how much electricity Google is using, they can say: 'Look, we've done all this good stuff.'

"But are they doing it out of the goodness out of their own heart? No – they're doing it to be perceived more positively by the marketplace."

Google stresses that its resources are very much focused on internet-related activity; the driverless car project, for example, has 15 engineers working on it out of a total workforce of 23,000.

But "internet-related activity" is a concept that's broadening fast and Google's immense data mountain is driving development in other, more unexpected areas.

A Star Trek-style telephone that automatically translates between languages was first mooted earlier this year and, while its arrival is a few years away, it's no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Searches we make daily for products and services provide the company with a mass of data that can be used for economic forecasting; the newly-launched Google Price Index is just one small aspect of this.

In an "Owners' Manual for Google's Shareholders" written in 2004, Page and Brin stated: "Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one. We will not shy away from high-risk, high-reward projects because of short-term earnings pressure."

The question is whether "unconventional" could become "unstoppable" and how the public will react as Google assumes a bigger role in their lives. The company currently enjoys – perhaps uniquely – what Andrews describes as a "uniquely positive position" in public opinion.

"They can do what they want – they're Google," he says. "But all companies with these strong, positive perceptions must ultimately address some shift in that feeling."

What's in the pipeline?

The driverless car

Nod off at the wheel in comfort and safety? Just maybe, in around eight years or so. The fleet of cars being tested by Google are equipped with navigation equipment, video cameras, radar sensors, and lasers that alert the vehicle to nearby traffic; combined, they can theoretically drive the car better than a human being. Some 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents, a figure Google aims to cut by half.

The human-powered monorail

One of five winning concepts in a Google-launched competition calling for ideas that would "change the world", the Shweeb – a cross between a monorail system and a recumbent bicycle – is being funded to the tune of $1m by the internet giant. It's currently being exhibited as a theme park attraction in Rotorua, New Zealand, but a system for public use is being developed which will propel people at speeds of up to 28mph.

The offshore wind farm

Despite popular opposition to wind farms, Google announced last week that it would be throwing its weight behind the Atlantic Wind Connection, a stretch of turbines that's proposed for a site some 350 miles off the east coast of the USA. Still in its initial stages of planning – and still without government approval – the project would eventually cost $5bn and serve around two million homes.

The solar-powered installation

Falling prices and government enthusiasm have led to an increasing number of solar-power projects in the USA; one gigawatt of power will have been generated by solar power this year alone, enough for 200,000 homes. One California-based company, BrightSource Energy, is being backed by a number of organisations, including Google's "philanthropic" wing, google.org, to build a major installation in Southern California.

The budget satellite

Google flirted with phone hardware this year with its Nexus One; while CEO Eric Schmidt has said there will be no successor, Nasa has partnered with Google to experiment with launching said phone into space to establish whether cheap mobile phone components can handle the rigours of space travel. If so, bus-sized satellites may soon be replaced by ones no bigger that the palm of the hand.

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