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Abhinaya, Arjuna, Google
January 30, 2007
Rohit, my friend's son, all of ten years has been told by his visiting grandfather that he should know more about Indian culture, tradition etc etc. If he learns the basic story of the Mahabharata, the grandpa as Rohit calls him has told him, he will be given a prize.
Rohit is ready the same evening and impresses not only his grandfather but his parents as well by his understanding of the rivalry between Karna and Arjuna. 'Where did you read all this? How did you find a book in San Jose?' he is asked, as alas there is no such book in the home as the visitor has sadly noticed. Rohit is surprised that he is being asked. It has taken him an hour to research the story using Google.
A change in scene.
'The acting element, abhinaya, is it stronger in Bharata Natyam?' asks Carolene, whom we have taken to a performance. She is an Indophile, no doubt, but this is her first exposure to any Indian classical dance.
Never mind. Throughout the evening she speaks impressively about major forms of Indian classical dance, the differences between Odissi and Kuchipudi and what not. I am silent. I know how she is so knowledgeable on an esoteric subject. She has first googled it, then looked it up on Wikipedia and finally researched it on the web. As a result she is better informed than we are.
One last example.
'I see that you did physics in college. So you can understand what we are trying to do with memory chips,' says Ken O'Connor, the CEO of the technology company I am visiting in Silicon Valley. We are meeting in his office for the first time, have just started talking and are a minute into the conversation.
Me and physics? That was a long time back and I have even forgotten that I had a degree in it before gravitating to philosophy.
'No. I know very little physics. But I see that you are looking at starting manufacturing in China. I have come to make the case for you to look at India,' I say, which is the purpose of my visit.
As I said, we have just met for the first time. How did he know about my ancient acquaintance with physics? How did I know about his futuristic intentions to invest in China? Simple.
We have both Googled each other, glanced at the bio-profiles, and are armed with the facts required for the foreplay. To meet someone in Silicon Valley without Googling them in advance is the professional equivalent of declaring that you don't use a computer. It is suicidal as I have learnt.
Google is a company that is not yet ten years old, but, it is unthinkable even for me, a novice in the delights of technology to imagine a world -- or if this is a hyperbole, a cyber world -- without it. If Omniscience is a miracle, Google is a miracle.
This is the Google story simplified for non-specialists.
To start at the beginning, two students in their twenties, Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford University as they joined computer engineering. Indians who believe in parental influence and in samskara will be happy to note that both came from geeky backgrounds, if that term can be used with respect and not derision.
Sergey was born in Russia with the parents migrating to the US. His father is a professor in computer engineering and the mother a programmer. Larry's father is a professor of mathematics and the mother is with NASA. So, no surprises in these two with their gene pool, being frighteningly bright and ambitious as they came together at the university.
Now, Stanford has a long tradition of students dreaming of inventions even while studying, and tinkering with their ideas in nearby garages. Some become such hits that the students simply drop out altogether to become legends.
Sergey and Larry had such ambitions. The Web was the big buzz in 1996 and they decided that this is what they would research. Their idea was to find some method of 'mining' the vast ocean of information on the web -- some way of crawling through all the billions of web pages and when necessary to come up with the nuggets that one is looking for, in lightening speed. 'Search' was not entirely new -- Yahoo and a few others were already organising the information.
The brilliance of Sergey-Larry was in devising a process called 'PageRank' which ranks the search results according to relevance, finds a correlation between all the web pages, and does all this in the blink of an eyelid.
The key is the celebrated 'algorithms' -- equations which use diverse criteria to match and rank the web pages to respond closely to the seeker's requirement. Thus, if you are looking for info on say 'Tiger Woods' the golfer, you don't want to see the millions of web pages on tigers nor on forests/woods, but only on this superb sportsman. That is the challenge.
They had found a process. The next step was to make it usable, to start a company. The unique environment of the Silicon Valley (described in my column Silicon Valley Revisited) helped in this: they found funding by some, who believed in their idea, advisers on how to make it a business and lawyers to protect their intellectual property.
A name had to be found in a jiffy and they called it Google, a fun name derived from the mathematical number googol, a very large number with a hundred zeroes. Google hit the road in 1998. There has been no looking back.
Today Google is a verb as in 'googled' and a giant of a company valued over a hundred billion dollars. Since all searches on Google are free, how does it make money? Through very innovative and scientific solutions to advertising revenues. Google has always kept the results of search or the knowledge content, separate from advertising, a cardinal principle for Sergey and Larry. But as the web user searches for what interests him, related products and services pop up with the hope that his eyes notice them and are attracted to them.
For example, if you want to know more about 'cancer' for instance, apart from the links with information about the dreaded disease, on one side of the screen, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, test laboratories etc are vying for your attention with their links and are paying Google for the privilege.
It is your choice where to go next and what to see, and no one link is popping up or screaming for attention. Google's inventiveness has been in devising a system in which these advertisers pay varied charges depending on a number of factors: their rank in the link, how many eyeballs notice them, how many click and look further, and finally how many buy their product. It is a complex process but Google has found a way to mine not only information, but the user's intentions too, depending on the series of clicks. Therein lies its path to riches.
But Google is not all about science and revenues: it is a quirky and funky company too, true to the spirit of its founders who are fun loving. The motto is 'Do no evil', however you interpret it and the driving spirit is to be useful. The young duo has been mentored by Eric Schmidt, another older legend and the three together run a business with belief in the power of ideas.
While most companies hire people for a specific project, Google hires engineers, and only engineers, for their brilliance and lets them do what interests them. In its famous 70-20-10 rule regarding work hours, an employee spends 70 per cent of his time on company projects, 20 per cent on a private hobby or interest and 10 per cent on 'doing good'. Out of the box thinking is encouraged and conformity not appreciated.
Google's connection with India should be a matter of satisfaction for us. One of the early investors and supporters was Ram Sriram, now on the board of Google and therefore one of the wealthiest Indians in the US. Google has hundreds of Indian engineers, not selected to lower its costs, but for their capability, and it looks at its newly opened engineering facility in Bangalore, one of the few outside the US, as a fountainhead of ideas for the future.
What are Google's future products, problems, prospects? What about its famous rivalry with Microsoft, touched upon in a previous column War of the Geeks? Has it compromised by accepting censorship in China? So many questions. I have run out of space, but you can find all the answers on Google.
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at email@example.com
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
B S Prakash