Today, I woke up late, turned on my cellphone’s screen, and saw six new emails. I touched my fingerprint to the display, unlocked the phone, and briefly checked the messages. The contents and senders weren’t all that important though. What was striking, in this brief moment, was what I realized: Google is the Internet.
We’ve been living with the Internet as we know it for a couple decades now. Technology companies have come and gone, but the behemoths have grown to epic proportions. Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have all become some of the largest companies in the world. But there’s a distinct difference between those other names and Google (or, Alphabet, as it’s now called).
The company launched on August 18, 2004 on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange as GOOG. The four-letter ticker symbol was met with great fanfare and excitement. People wanted in on this inventive company that was revolutionizing search, ads, and online video.
Founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, penned an IPO letter before the launch of the stock. They detailed how Google would be different from all the rest. Shareholders wouldn’t be given special privileges and likely wouldn’t benefit from dividends (any time soon). Their votes wouldn’t matter, as control of the company would steadfastly be kept with those in leadership. And the stock could trade wildly, as profits weren’t of utmost importance. Page and Brin wanted to, first and foremost, build great technologies.
This focus on innovation over quarterly profit gains was a winning combination. Alphabet now sits as the second largest market capitalization — to Apple — in America. From a scrappy startup to tens of thousands of employees and billions in profits, this has been a meteoric rise. But it hasn’t always been an easy ride.
Every step they took, they were met with scrutiny. Countless antitrust lawsuits suggest Google is being monopolistic or manipulating search results in their own favor. There are accusations that the company doesn’t respect user’s privacy, and can be easily compelled to hand over what they know to information-hungry government surveillance organizations. They’ve been sued for driving around neighborhoods scanning people’s wi-fi networks and locations, too.
Despite these challenges, their efforts don’t seem to be slowing. The company is creating new hubs around the country. Heck, just north of where I used to live in Colorado they’re building an extensive mini-campus for Googlers! Lest you think construction and new-hires are their only areas of growth, think again. Alphabet is branching into artificial intelligence in mind-bending ways, too. The team, aptly named Google Brain, is leading the charge to develop machines that think for themselves, learn, and become smarter. Right now, they’re capable of beating chess and go champions, moving objects more efficiently, and finding answers more rapidly. In time, it’s easy to see these technologies testing humans’ capabilities.
Amidst this rapid ascendency into artificial intelligence and machine learning is also a company with more earthly ambitions: storing the world’s data. When I get on my smartphone or computer, check my emails in Inbox by Gmail, type out a note about research in Google Drive, write new appointments in Google Calendar, conduct a Google Search to find the 2004 Founders’ IPO Letter for this article, check a stock price on Google Finance (GOOG is at $782 right now), and then wrap this all up by looking at photos from last week on Google Photos, Google is at the heart of it.
Importantly, amidst this growth is an important consideration: most everything is free. For the frugal people that follow my blog, I wouldn’t be surprised if you embraced this cost-effective solution as I do. If you use other technologies, you’ll be spending a small fortune in comparison to Google’s products. Want to get an Apple iPhone? It’ll cost you $600-800 off contract. Google’s smartphones cost about $300-400 less. Want to use a word processor? Microsoft’s will cost you about $10 per month for access. Google’s is free. Interested in getting a new laptop? A good Mac or PC could run you $800-1000. Google’s Chromebooks are about $200-500.
Yes, people will argue that you’re sacrificing your privacy. Some say, “If you use Google, you’re the product because they sell your data to advertisers!” While factually blurry, the gist is true. We’re exchanging this right to services (like the Google Doc I’m typing this into) for our data and privacy. Contrary to popular belief, no individual advertiser has my data; instead, Google aggregates the world’s data for its advertisers.
The cost savings that Google has handed to us has led to an information revolution. Schools can afford to reduce technology costs, while increasing students’ access to the Internet and productivity tools. If we want an answer to Pythagorean theorem, we just Google it. Want to take a free, online course? Google it and start watching the YouTube videos. The answers are there for the taking. Information has been democratized and it’s not because of a government agency or hardware manufacturer. It’s this one software and search company.
So here we are, with Google as the Internet. It’s everything we interact with and rely on to get things done; at least, for much of us. You might be thinking I love this progression, advancement, and technological prowess. But to be honest, I’m concerned.
Here we are in the 21st century, and one company seems to be leading everything. If there’s real competition, they either build their own competitor or swallow it up through acquisitions. People are getting rich — wealth is spilling into their coffers. Meanwhile, we place our trust, data, and reliance on this one company to handle it all.
We don’t get to vote on Google’s proceedings. They aren’t a government agency. What they choose to do with our data is their decision. And even if we used tools like Google Takeout to take everything off their servers, we’d probably end up using Google Search, YouTube, and other Google services to get through our day. We’re stuck with this Internet leader — for better and for possibly worse.
As much as I love the company and everything they’ve done to make the Internet more affordable to everyone, I wonder what it might look like if something failed, new leadership took over that wasn’t friendly to users, or if governments around the world started demanding even more from Google’s servers. Right now, Google is too big to fail. And just like banks, that’s a frightening proposition — no matter the cost savings.