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Arming Secretly
Does Google understand the gravity of the challenges that may confront it? Does it have a strategy for winning an architectural war? The evidence is equivocal.

Google has software developers skilled enough to construct a powerful architectural position. It has hired both newly minted PhDs and experienced technologists from Netscape and even Microsoft. One of its newer employees is Adam Bosworth, famous to software developers for developing the HTML engine in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and for his pioneering work on the Extensible Markup Language, or XML, the standard for machine-to-machine communication on the Web. Other recent hires, significant for their architectural expertise, include Rob Pike, a pioneer of the Unix operating system at Bell Labs; Joshua Bloch, a leading Java coder from Sun; and Cedric Beust, who developed the Weblogic platform at BEA Systems.

One Google manager, who preferred not to be named, said his company understands the need for proprietary control, and that future products would prove it. In late 2004, Google did release two important new APIs, for its Deskbar search tool and its advertising systems. But the Google executive declined to comment on future plans, noting that his employer had become secretive to the point of paranoia. (Indeed, Google’s senior executives refused to be interviewed for this article.)

The executive then went on to say, “Look, everyone here – right up to our CEO and board of directors – has had the shit kicked out of them over the last five years. A lot of them were at Netscape, or at failed dot coms. Nobody I work with is complacent, and they’re all very smart.” But there are two important people who haven’t had the shit kicked out of them: Google’s founders. In a Playboy interview published shortly before Google’s IPO, Brin and Page did not mention competitive threats. Rather, they talked about corporate ethics, the creation of foundations, and their efforts to make Google a great place to work.

Google is a great place to work. My friends there absolutely love the place, and in part for that reason, they work very hard. Google allows pets and provides employees with laundry service, drinks, meals, massages, car washes, and (soon) child care. Its corporate motto is “Don’t be evil.” But long ago, a professor of mine, noting my youthful idealism, remarked that the only successful neutral nations are those, like Switzerland, that are permanently armed to the teeth. And for Google, neutrality is not an option.

But what specifically should Google do? How is Microsoft likely to attack, what will the contest look like, and what will decide its outcome? Let’s begin with the current state of search.

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