Google revs its engines to show where it may be headed
Google opened its doors yesterday to more than 100 journalists in what it called its first "Factory Tour" — but there was no factory...
Seattle Times technology reporter
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google opened its doors yesterday to more than 100 journalists in what it called its first "Factory Tour" — but there was no factory and no tour.
There were no assembly lines of Google workers stamping out search engine features. In fact, the company had let its employees out for the day to watch "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith."
Journalists, barred from poking around campus, were confined to Google's upscale cafeteria, where they heard presentations from Google executives and ate the gourmet meals the company's chefs are famous for.
Part public relations, part company overview and part charm, it was the first media day Google has held. Brandishing a plastic "Star Wars" lightsaber, Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt opened the event by describing it as a test to see if it made sense to give reporters an organized rundown of the company's activities.
And tucked into the agenda, late in the day, was a snippet of actual news. Google said it would begin offering users a personalized version of its home page that can be customized with top news stories, weather forecasts, movie showtimes and stock market quotes.
The personalized page, still in test mode on Google's research labs site, doesn't break much new ground. Yahoo! and Microsoft's MSN division have had similar offerings for years.
But one analyst said the personalized page was important because it gives Google a platform from which it can launch future services, such as instant messaging or music.
"This elevates them from being just a search company to basically opening an ostensible platform from which they could become a media company," said Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst in attendance. "They could pose it any way they want, but now they're a media company."
Google also demonstrated a program in development that allows users to quickly view high-resolution satellite photos. Called Google Earth, the program is being integrated with Google's mapping technology so that users could look up driving directions, for example, and trace the trip on a satellite image.
The company did not say when Google Earth would become available or what it might cost users.
The rest of the day was spent reviewing basics of how Google's search engine and advertising systems work.
At the start of sessions, Google played videos of executives saying things like, "To be Google is to deliver the fastest answer to every question, and we have to be right" and "We like to underpromise what we're going to give and overdeliver."
On breaks, reporters milled around the company's main cafeteria, which has enough track lighting to rival a small concert hall, while dance music played in the background. Executives made presentations on a stage, standing in front of a screen measuring 12 feet by 20 feet.
The executives repeatedly mentioned two concepts. One was that the company's goal is to organize the world's information and make it accessible and useful.
"And when we talk about organizing all the world's information, we mean all," said Schmidt. It will take about 300 years to do so, he added, and even that estimate might be too optimistic.
The second concept was Google's structure of focusing 70 percent of its resources on its core business — search and advertising development. Twenty percent looks at businesses similar to the core, such as Google's news searching application.
The remaining 10 percent delves into a wide-open "other" category, Schmidt said.
Marissa Mayer, director of Google's consumer Web products, talked about the quirks of some company employees. The person who heads the Web-crawling team got married one day on his lunch hour, she said, and came back in the afternoon to finish his work. That was a testimony to his work ethic, she said.
Another employee with the responsibility of keeping spam and offensive sites out of Google's page results brings his wife's cookies to work to bribe his colleagues to help him find porn.
Executives, including co-founder Sergey Brin, gave a quick overview of some of the company's more recent releases, including Google's mapping software and search technology for large businesses. They addressed some of the privacy-rights concerns that have been raised about Google Web Accelerator and other programs.
The accelerator, released in test form, was intended to make it faster for people to navigate the Web. It ran all of a user's Web activity through Google's servers, which privacy advocates deplored. Additionally, some people said they could access other users' Web activity.
The company pulled the accelerator off its site in less than a week, saying it had reached its capacity of test users.
"Certainly there's a lesson there that we need to be as aggressive as we can about testing these things internally," said Jonathan Rosenberg, a vice president of product management at the company.
Weiner, the Gartner analyst, viewed the day as a sign that Google is growing up, at least in the way it presents itself.
"I view this as kind of a first step so that they become more open and establish closer relationships," he said. "They have not really been known that well as somebody all that open and forthcoming."
Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or firstname.lastname@example.org