Unconventional company that grew too big for the world it helped shape

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The Independent Online

Look at the photographs of Larry Page and Sergey Brin on the Google corporate profiles page, and what you see staring back at you are two prototypical geeks who just happen to be two of the richest, most influential men on the planet. Almost impossibly young, they have generic, grey open-neck shirts they plainly don't enjoy wearing, and they both have that pallor that comes of spending way too much time staring at a computer screen.

Ever since they founded Google seven-and-a-half years ago, they have striven to make it as unconventional a company as possible: one where the former chef for the Grateful Dead cooks the employees' lunch every day, one where the amount of money raised in last year's initial public share offering was exactly one billion times the value of the mathematical constant e.

The Page and Brin double act first met at Stanford University in 1995, Larry was on a weekend visit from Michigan, where he had studied computer engineering and, in one of his idler moments, managed to construct an inkjet printer out of Lego pieces. He wound up on the same computer science doctoral path as Brin - although both soon became far too involved in their work lives ever to finish their theses. Brin had come out to California from much further east - he was born in Russia, raised on the east coast and earned his first degree from the University of Maryland.

Together they developed a common interest in what was, back then, a maddeningly complex problem - data retrieval from the internet. Their first innovation was an engine they called BackRub, in which they first hit upon the idea that the way to search the web was not just through keywords but by tracking the number of links to any given site from other sites.

This was the real start of Google. Their first office was a garage in Menlo Park, a stone's throw from campus, and boasted just one employee besides themselves. It didn't take long for the company to expand into the Googleplex, the current headquarters a few miles away in Mountain View which offers some unforgettably arresting décor to the arriving visitor: lava lamps, giant balls, a baby grand piano and a pool table. While for much of Silicon Valley the dot-com boom turned to bust, Google went from strength to strength. Despite the heady financial success - Brin and Page are each worth more than $10bn (£5.6bn)- the pair kept their eyes firmly on the main prize, technological innovation.

The simple wonder of innovation has, perhaps inevitably, given way to a mounting concern about what all this search- engine power might mean in the digital future. Will governments be able to harness the power of Google, or services like it, to spy on us all at will? Is it exciting or unnerving to click on to Google's satellite imaging service and be able to zero in on a neighbour's patio or back garden? If Google successfully catalogues information from books, newspapers, journals and even broadcast media, what kind of a future will journalism and publishing have?

These are questions that even Page and Brin probably cannot answer - yet. Their track record suggests that they have certainly spent plenty of time thinking about it, and are edging towards some kind of vision of the future. The China deal suggests, at the very least, that the vision won't always be as pretty as their fans and customers might wish. After shaping reality so successfully for the past eight years, Page and Brin, the eternal grad students, are discovering that the real world still has the capacity to shape them, too.

A brief history of an internet phenomenon

* 1995: Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin meet at Stanford University while studying computer science.

* 1996: They launch Google's predecessor, BackRub, named for its ability to analyse "back links" to a given website.

* 1998: Page and Brin buy a terabyte of second-hand memory and build Google's first data centre in Page's dorm room. They receive their first investment and move to a friend's garage.

* 1999: Answering more than three million queries a day, Google moves to its current "Googleplex" headquarters in California - renowned for its unorthodox work ethic, numerous lava lamps and twice-weekly staff hockey games.

* 2000: Google officially becomes the world's largest search engine, answering 100 million queries every day. Signs up with China's leading portal NetEase.

* 2001: Page and Brin sign deals with almost every major internet provider in Asia and Latin America, bringing Google to billions of people from the developing world with sites in 26 different languages.

* 2002: Launch of Google News offers access to 4,500 different media sources.

* 2005: Google able to search more than eight billion web pages and one billion images

* 2006 Google receives widespread condemnation for its decision to comply with the Chinese government's wishes to censor access for Chinese users. For the first time, Google fails to live up to Wall Street's sky-high expectations and the company's shares fall by 9 per cent.

Jerome Taylor