Google eyes further expansion

Despite Google’s phenomenal growth, the Internet search giant does not appear to be worried about taking on too many projects, judging from comments made at a media roundtable Wednesday with company cofounder Sergey Brin and CEO Eric Schmidt.

Though Google is expanding into multiple areas such as operating systems, applications, online books and display advertising, more than 90 per cent of company revenue comes from keyword-related search advertising, acknowledged Schmidt, who is also the chairman of the company. Schmidt and Brin, who rarely makes public appearances, sat down with journalists at the company’s New York headquarters to field questions about a wide variety of topics.

“In technology … you either grow or die,” Schmidt said. Nevertheless, the company is not hiring as fast as it once did, which may help it better absorb the changes it has made over the past few years, Brin pointed out. “I’m not sure we’ll ever double from the headcount we have now,” Brin said.

From its consumer-focused roots, Google has been expanding into the enterprise market with its enterprise search appliance and applications. Developing for the consumer and corporate markets may not be as different as some observers might think, according to Brin.

“Increasingly all of our offerings are available to both the enterprise and the consumer … and many of the features that the enterprise users are asking for are the same as what small and medium-size companies are asking for,” Brin said. Many of Google’s offerings were “born from an internal need,” he pointed out.

“We’ve focused on some things that would work in an enterprise and also rolled it out to consumers,” Brin said.

In 2004, for example, “webmail was really a toy,” Brin added. With Gmail, the company pushed further than competitors, offering technology that was able to handle large amounts of data in the cloud, he pointed out. Some products like the Picasa photo-editing and -sharing technology are not aimed at enterprises but will be eventually, Brin said.

“I think the cloud model is a better model” for applications, Brin said. “Think about all the upgrades you … never have to see again.”

Increasing and ensuring uptime is a key to winning over enterprise customers, Brin acknowledged, in response to a comment that Google has suffered two outages recently. The company is trying to adjust its underlying network architecture, he noted, “grouping users into pods so (outages) don’t have this kind of chain reaction.”

Despite Google’s efforts to expand into multiple technologies however, “search needs to get better … faster,” Schmidt said. Google’s working on a number of projects to enhance search technology. Not all of the search options on what Google calls the “tool belt” are available across applications such as image and video search, Brin noted. “I’d like to see all of the options available.”

Brand-new options will be coming down the pike, Brin noted. Today, for example, users can get a timeline view of search results based on dates in documents, but the company would like to be able to allow a view based on dates when documents were created, he said.

Though the company is expanding in applications as well as operating systems — with the Android mobile platform launched last year and its upcoming Chrome OS on track to appear in PCs next year — it will not bring people into the sort of “closed loop” that Microsoft users have found themselves in, Schmidt emphasized. “Many of our users are only one click away … from other online services,” he noted. The company would not be able to suddenly start charging for previously free software, since that would break a bond of trust with users and the public outcry would be enormous, he said.

In addition, Google is basing its operating systems on open-source technology, so competitors could take the source code and offer it free if Google changed its business model, Schmidt said.

The Google Chrome OS is still on track to appear on devices in 2010, judging from remarks both Schmidt and Brin made. There will be some overlap in the market for Android and Chrome operating systems in netbooks, but Chrome is aimed at the 12-inch-and-over form factor, Schmidt said.

The meeting with the Google executives took place at about the same time as a New York court status hearing on progress that the company is making in dealing with complaints about its agreement with The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) regarding the vast Google Books project to scan texts and offer them online. The basic plan is that Google will offer only snippets of text online. Readers will have to pay to access full text of books, and Google has worked out a payment system with authors and publishers. But critics of the deal say it could lead to a Google online book monopoly and crowd out competitors.

“Some of the criticisms as I read them … are legitimate,” Schmidt allowed, declining to specify what he considers to be legitimate concerns. Schmidt and Brin repeated Google’s position that it is bringing books — especially so-called “orphan works” whose authors can no longer be found — to a wider audience than ever before.

As far as the criticisms are concerned, “we can address them in the settlement,” Schmidt said.

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