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Thursday, May 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Google wants to act more grown-up

Seattle Times senior technology writer

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google still feels like a startup company, but it's time to make changes that reflect its stature as the world's pre-eminent search business, executives said at the company's annual media day Wednesday.

Some of the changes reflect the harsh scrutiny faced by the idealistic young company over its business practices in China, where it complied with government censors. The changes also result from investors who want more details about the company's operations.

Consumers are also confused sometimes about the nature of Google products released in beta, or test, version, said co-founder Sergey Brin.

"We've sort of abused the word beta a little bit," he said, explaining that people both inside and outside Google "have put more expectations on the things that we throw out there."

Brin and other executives told reporters that test products are often released in rough form to see how they work and to gather feedback from customers. They're not intended to be as bulletproof as the company's flagship search engine, but that's led to confusion by customers who start counting on test products, such as Google's messaging service.

"I think we need to communicate better the things we expect to work well and the things [where] you guys are the guinea pigs, frankly," Brin said.

Executives declined to discuss how they're increasingly in head-on competition with Microsoft in the search-, advertising- and online-services businesses.

But Brin acknowledged Google is concerned it could suffer the fate of Netscape, which saw its commanding lead in Web browsers dissipate after Microsoft moved in.

"We certainly see the history with that particular company — being a convicted monopoly and not necessarily playing fair in other situations — Netscape and whatnot — so we want to focus early on and make sure we at least are looking at the situations where power can be abused," he said.

Chief Executive Eric Schmidt acknowledged that rivalry will be even more intense in the future. "This competition is good," he said. "It's quite healthy for end users."

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Other changes under way at the Googleplex, the company's sprawling campus here, include efforts to be more "transparent" with investors and customers.

Internally, the company also reorganized to better focus the efforts of its engineering teams on its core search and advertising businesses, Schmidt said.

"We recently did a full reordering and a full reprioritization of all the activities, not around what the engineers were doing but the areas of product investment ... where engineering investment should go," he said.

At the same time, Google will continue to roll out new products and updated versions of earlier releases, even in beta form.

The company released the fourth version of its Google Desktop software, a free application that adds Google products to a Windows PC desktop. The new version includes Google Gadgets, small applications that display a stream of information from the Internet, such as boxes displaying weather, sports scores or information from the Google Calendar application.

Gadgets are key features of Apple's current OS X operating system and Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista. They're also available from Yahoo!

Perhaps the most intriguing gadget in the new Google desktop is a digital media player that could be a platform for Google to enter the online music business.

Also released yesterday was an experimental "social" search refinement service that draws input of users. It can be used to create clusters of focused search results on a particular topic, such as health care.

Google is also giving users more insight into what others are searching for with Google Trends. When search terms are entered into Trends, it displays a chart showing the volume of searches on that topic over several years. It also shows the volume of searches on that topic by location.

Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn hadn't seen the new products and didn't have a comment Wednesday afternoon.

"They release products, we release products, we let the market decide," he said.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com. He writes a blog through the week at seattletimes.com/brierdudleysblog.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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