Book Summary: In the Plex by Steven Levy
An amazing book which describes Google’s journey right from its beginning in the Stanford dorm. The author interviewed several top echelons of Google and presented several interesting insider anecdotes and stories of Google.
The book provides details of major projects like Gmail, Google Desktop, Google News and Google Toolbar, Google Books and the failure of Orkut. It also describes the process of acquisition of YouTube, Blogger, Docs, GrandCentral and Double Click.
Following are the few salient points. The book has many more interesting anecdotes which I am forced to skip here.
- The first meeting of Larry with his tour guide Sergey Brin during a tour of San Francisco organized by Stanford where Larry felt Sergey is really obnoxious.
- Page’s dorm roommate came out with the name “googol”.
- The initial product was way ahead of the competitor Excite which decided not to purchase it since this can eventually lead to the low stickiness of the users’ on their site (They wanted search engine which is 80% as good as the best out there)
- Ultimately, Larry and Sergey started their own company and moved to Susan Wojcicki’s garage.
- And soon they were joined by several experienced researchers like Urs Holzle, Amit Singhal, and Krishna Bharat.
- Eventually, Susan left Intel’s director position and joined Google as well (Sergey later married her sister, Anne)
- The founders were ultimately forced to get “adult supervision” for which they chose Steve Jobs (which was far-fetched even then) and ended up with Eric Schmidt.
- Overture came up with the CPC model but never patented it and everyone from Google to Yahoo started using it.
- A Google engineer (Eric Veach) re-invented reverse dutch auction system which improved the CPC model a lot (This became AdWords)
- Another company AdSense came up with its patented idea of showing ads on the website and eventually Google bought it.
- The road to IPO was an ugly one, SEC didn’t like their informal letter, founders cracked jokes instead of answering potential investors questions sincerely, dressed informally, decided reverse dutch auction for IPO and final nail in the coffin was a Playboy interview, this all eventually lead to a decline in price from (expected) $135 per share to 85$ per share.
- Failed China policy
- Bad start: Google sounded like Dog, GuGe (“valley girl”) didn’t rhyme with urban Chinese and Google was never able to come up with a good name.
- Worse journey: Google China was bad at fresh content compared to Baidu, was a regular target of Chinese government fines and its employees felt like second class citizens (with no access to production code), not to mention the personality cult of Kai-Fu Lee (every employee wanted to be given title of his personal assistant). While greasing reporters’ palm to gifting government employees was prevalent in China, many of these activities were culturally looked down upon in USA (and sometimes, they were outright illegal). Sogou code plagiarism incident proved another PR hit.
- Worst exit: after security incident (in 2010).
Sergey was opposed to the idea of entering China from the beginning and the author suspects that China policy was one reason why Eric stepped down in 2011.
- Political initiatives:
- Google’s open support to Obama
- The lobbying effort to reduce fix copyright issues (and reduce the music industry’s influence)
- Google Book controversy
- Youtube-Viacom lawsuit
- StreetView controversy
- Being a big company now, any major effort from Google is seen with suspicion.
The book ends with a note on Facebook and Google’s social effort (Orkut, Open Social and not Google+).
Its a must read for everyone who is curious to know about Google.
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