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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

    £45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

    Ashdown Group: Junior SQL DBA - London - £39,000

    £37000 - £39000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: SQL Database Administrato...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £26000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Expanding creative studio requi...

    Day In a Page

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible