In the Plex

In the Plex (2011) by Steven Levy is a detailed look inside Google, the company that drastically changed internet search and advertising. Levy is a longtime writer about computers and technology and wrote the book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution in 1984. For this book he has had a lot of access to Google.

The book goes over the start of Google, as the creation of two brilliant Stanford grad students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page in the late 1990s. They created a search engine that gave more relevant results. They also managed to scale their search engine better than other companies had by using open source software and cheap commodity parts. Levy goes over how the company started and managed to recruit so many talented engineers.

Having a powerful search engine was a profitable business, but to become really profitable a way had to be found to monetize this and Google did this spectacularly using AdWords that added relevant advertising to searches and Adsense that added advertisements to anyones website. Google’s massive amounts of data and algorithms that determined and improved relevance made this an extremely profitable business.

This money-making machine has been used by Google to improve their own data gathering and also to expand into new areas. Google’s ventures into video by itself with Google Video and then the purchase of YouTube has enable Google to grow and become even more important on the internet. Their purchase of Android, the mobile phone OS company and their expansion of it has enabled them to be a major play in the phone market and stop the Apple from dominating the market.

Levy’s book goes over all these events with a good eye for a story and with understanding. The book certainly gives a good sense of the remarkable achievement of Google in creating such a staggeringly large corpus of data. Levy also manages to paint good portraits of the founders and some of Google’s major figures. However the number of names becomes overwhelming. But this is really because there are so many people involved. Levy also provides an insight into Google’s culture. It would be interesting to talk to Googlers to see how accurate it actually is. Levy presents the founders as people who really believe that amazing things are possible and as people who have repeatedly done such things it’s impressive.

The book looks at Google’s ethics and their philosophy of not doing evil. Levy is skeptical but does give them credit for being reasonable about this. Google’s entry and departure from China is given a long chapter and is set up as being the great test of Google’s ethics. The way Google interacts with people now as an internet behemoth in their book digitization effort is also examined. An interesting view of Googlers being genuinely surprised by the views of others that they are doing something wrong is well written by Levy.

The book also looks at how Google engaged with some politicians, in particular with Barack Obama and how the culture of Google compares to the culture of Washington.

Finally the book looks at how Google is now, in some ways, becoming something ‘old’ as  MySpace and then Facebook have overtaken Google in social networking and Twitter is ‘new’ while Google is old.  Google’s social efforts are outlined. The book also provides a quick mention of Google’s new investments in driverless cars that are initially aimed at their Streetview project but that clearly have further implications.

The book is, as would be expected by a book where the author has had so much access, quite positive about Google. It’s interesting to contrast the attitude of many toward Google toward that of the attitude of people toward Microsoft, IBM and Apple. Google has long been better regarded, perhaps because stopping using Google has long been just a click away. Levy has a longtime interest in technology and this book furthers his reputation. For anyone interested in the internet, computers, Silicon Valley the book will join other books like Accidental Empires as something well worth reading.

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