Phenomenally successful, but also imitated, envied and feared — Google is the technological icon of our time. But is its ubiquity and influence a force for good?
Chief executive Eric Schmidt has no doubts. He told the Guardian that Google has been instrumental in a generational shift in democratizing information.
“Over my lifetime, we are going to go from a small number of people having access to most of the world’s information, to virtually everybody in the world having access to virtually all of the world’s information,” he said. “That’s because of Web search, cheap phones and automatic translation. That’s a pretty amazing achievement and Google is part of that.”
Yet with Google active in so many areas, from shopping to video and translation to music, its competitors are becoming more numerous and opponents more vociferous.
“We try to do everything ... We don’t shake off the big goals,” Schmidt says.
In an interview ahead of his keynote presentation at the Guardian’s Activate Summit on Thursday, he makes it clear Google is positioning itself for the future through mobile devices, with the development of its Android mobile system and with subsequent Google-branded handsets. He was keener to talk about this area than the battle with newspaper groups such as News International, whose pay wall model is partly based on what it considers Google’s parasitical attitude to original content.
The mobile battle pitches the three biggest tech firms against each other: Google, Apple and Microsoft. Analyst Gartner Inc puts Android as the world’s fourth most-popular smartphone operating system in the first quarter of this year — ahead of Microsoft in a market it joined less than two years ago, but behind Symbian (Nokia), Research in Motion (Blackberry) and Apple.
The 50,000 apps built for Android, mostly by third-party developers, cover almost every topic, but the one killer app is still Google itself, Schmidt says.
Our online lives are now more personal, social and mobile, he says.
“When people are awake, they are now online, and that has a lot of implications for society and for Google,” he says.
Google’s secret, he adds (though it’s not much of a secret), is that it can handle more data than its rivals because it has larger networks and data centers. Google in effect pulled its business from China earlier this year after moving the operation to Hong Kong, bypassing China’s censorship regime.
Google, the company famously linked to the motto “Don’t be evil,” had been heavily criticized for its decision to do business in China and its rethink was welcomed by the industry. It also increased pressure on rivals who still operate there.
Another key push from Google is encouraging governments to open information to the public, via formats that developers can build useful public services around.
One recent victory for open data campaigners in the UK was Transport for London opening its travel data for commercial use, but the UK coalition government has indicated it may establish a broader public “right to data” that will have to be provided by local and national authorities.
Schmidt says Google’s policy is to encourage governments to open their data to the public.
The California-based company has teams helping to prepare “non Web-resident” archives and databases for the Web.