What Google’s about

What is Google about? Is it about search? or advertising? Actually, it’s probably about data.

I’ve been reminded of this by a couple of recent articles I’ve read. The Economist’s Babbage blog has a good piece on the Google Internet bus – a free, mobile cybercafe that operates in India.

“It has covered over 43,000km and passed through 120 towns in 11 states since it hit the road on February 3rd, 2009. Google estimates that 1.6m people have been offered their first online experience as a result.”

And also as a result, Google has a huge amount of data. I was reminded of Google’s appetite for data by a recent review of several books about Google in the London Review of Books. In 2007 Google started up a directory inquiry service in the USA:

“You dialled 1-800-4664-411 and spoke your question to the robot operator, which parsed it and spoke you back the top eight results, while offering to connect your call. It was free, nifty and widely used, especially because – unprecedentedly for a company that had never spent much on marketing – Google chose to promote it on billboards across California and New York State.”

People wondered why Google was doing this – it definitely wasn’t a money making exercise, and indeed only lasted for three years. What Google was doing was collecting a huge amount of phoneme data that it could use in voice recognition technology. It is almost certainly doing the same with its bus in India.

The availability of large amounts of data has changed various aspects of technology in many ways. Off the top of my head, it’s influenced voice recognition, natural language understanding and translation (which are rather different from each other) and of course has had a huge effect on marketing in general. Then there’s the forecasting of epidemics, and various initiatives to make data freely available to all. There is also now much more demand for large amounts of data storage, both physical (disk drives etc) and in software (database technology). It’s a chicken and egg situation with data storage, of course.