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Author Auletta Dissects Global Impact of Google

November 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with author Ken Auletta about his new book on Internet powerhouse Google called 'Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.'
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JEFFREY BROWN: Think of Google as a verb, something that millions of us now do routinely when we need some bit of information, or as a noun, the 11-year-old company founded by two Stanford students, or as a kind of brand, standing for an enormously changing universe of digital media.

The new book, “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It,” explores all three of these. Its author is Ken Auletta, longtime writer for The New Yorker and author of numerous other books on media and business. Welcome to you.

KEN AULETTA: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: You went into this knowing that this company was a phenomenon, what you call a wave-maker. But, after all the reporting, what’s the key to its success? What — what makes it so?

KEN AULETTA: Well, I think they start from an attitude that things are done inefficiently, particularly in the media world, be it advertising, or newspapers, or magazines, or television, or — or Microsoft, packaged software. And then the engineer comes in. And the engineer is really key, because they’re the Martin Scorsese. They’re the content creators. They’re the people who create things, applications, et cetera.

JEFFREY BROWN: Engineer is king at this place?

KEN AULETTA: They are. And they start with the single question, which is, why? Why can’t we sell ads more cheaply and tell the advertiser who — who they’re reaching with those ads and charge them only when they click? Why can’t we do news — Google News online, and get away all — from all the costs of those printed newspapers and distribution systems? Why do we have to sell packaged software, as Microsoft does, in expensive packages? Why can’t we do — quote — “cloud computing”? Why can’t we have cheaper telephone service?

They do all these things. And, in the process, the engineers have created a conflict with existing media businesses.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so — but, staying within the company here, I mean, there is this ethos of almost intellectual play which you describe, letting the engineers ask these questions…

KEN AULETTA: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … at the same time as growing a business.

Speaking the Google language

KEN AULETTA: I mean, I would sit in engineering meetings at Google, and I -- they were talking Swahili to me. I didn't understand half the words. I had the luxury of time to figure out what the words meant. But the truth is that the founders, the two co-founders, Eric -- Eric Schmidt is the CEO. He's an engineer. And the co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, engineers, they understood every word they spoke. And they could challenge those engineers. So, you think, if you're in a digital company, or you're in any company dealing with the digital world, and you don't speak the lingo of engineers, you're doomed.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about their also -- this -- the -- the -- well, there's the motto, right, don't be evil, this sense that we're not in it just for -- well, we're not even in it for money, they don't even -- it sounds like. They're – we're in it to do good, to change the world. I mean, they -- they talk this way. Is it real?

KEN AULETTA: It is real, and it's self-righteous, both. They started out, these two founders, with a very idealistic notion of making all the world's information available. For the first three years, they made no money. They had no clue as to how they would make money.

They finally came up with an advertising plan. But if you think about it, they refuse to run ads on their home page. They refused to lock you into Google search as -- they didn't create a portal that you have to stay in our portal to get a little information.

You do a search, and they chase you to the site you want. So, they win the trust of consumers with that. And it's free. Let's not forget that, very important. So, they have done wondrous things. And it's one of the reasons why Google is one of the most trusted brands in the world. People trust them.

But then they go to China in 2004, and the Chinese government says, listen, you are going to do a search on Tiananmen Square? No thanks. We don't want to show any unpleasantness. OK? And what do they do? They cave.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Suddenly, that ethos bumps up against the real...

KEN AULETTA: Reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reality, yes, yes.

KEN AULETTA: And, so, what does evil mean, don't be evil? If you close the office, as they did in late `98 in Phoenix, the people who worked in the Phoenix office, did they think that was an evil act or not?

So, evil is in the eye of the beholder. So, it becomes a self-defining phrase that they love and people around at Google, and they feel it. But is it totally real? No.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of bumping up against reality, now, the other thing that you spend a lot of time here is this -- is this sense of bumping up against lots of other new and old media. There's a line you say, "The Google wave has crashed into entire industries: advertising, newspapers, book publishing, television, telephones, movies, software, hardware makers."

So, this is a company that is disrupting a lot of these old and new media.

Tension with traditional media

KEN AULETTA: Totally disruptive. I asked Larry Page at one point, I said, is it true you will sometimes bump into traditional media? And, without being gleeful about it, he said: "Not sometimes. Always."

JEFFREY BROWN: Always? KEN AULETTA: And they know that. They know they're bumping into these companies, some of whom they do business with, in fact, many of them they do business with. But, inevitably, this is a much more efficient way of doing things. But it's a very disruptive and it's a hurtful way, at times. I mean, if you are decimating newspapers, can they be replaced by the blogosphere? I don't think so. And that's one of the basic questions that you have. I mean, what replaces the old with -- does the new replace it satisfactorily? And that is the fundamental question.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, one way of thinking about it is this company's impact on all these other industries and companies. The other way is the impact on it as it moves forward, right?

KEN AULETTA: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because the other thing you're talking about is the ways that it is more vulnerable it as crashes into these other places.

KEN AULETTA: And the -- one of the problems that Google has is that their great strength, as we talked about a moment ago, are engineers. That's their virtue. Their vice is the flip side of that. Engineers lack emotional intelligence often. They don't see things they can't measure. For instance, they don't know how to gauge fear.

I covered the Microsoft trial 10 years ago. Microsoft got in trouble with the government in part because Bill Gates and -- and his minions couldn't anticipate why the government would be concerned about their concentration of power, or why, today, Google is not acutely aware of why issues like privacy or copyright, both of which they -- they affect profoundly, would be of concern, not just to the government, and not just this government, but governments all around the world, but to other businesses.

So, Google today is in the crosshairs, the way Microsoft was 10 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: And -- and -- well, Microsoft is a good example, because you wrote about that. Is the question now, is Google different because of -- because of its culture, because of what it does, than a Microsoft, say, or others that once seemed invincible? Or do you see it sort of 10 years from now, we're kind of saying, what's the next one, and Google's just another -- not just another, but another -- but still just a big company?

Facebook, the new Google?

KEN AULETTA: I think Google is both different and similar, different in the sense, when I was doing Microsoft, I came away thinking that Microsoft was populated by cold businessmen. When I do Google, I find them populated by cold engineers. And the difference is that the cold businessman wants to kill the competition. Google is not interested in killing the competition. They just want more efficiencies. But, inevitably, you do kill some of the companies. And there's a social cost for that.

There's -- but I think there's much more idealism there. And they do things that are more noble in many ways than Microsoft did. The similarity is, there's a certain level of hubris that creeps in when you're that successful for so long a period of time. And you miss things that are happening. But, also, you live in a kind of cloistered world of free food, and free medical, and free buses, and free medicine, and free car washes on Thursday. And you start saying, hey, I'm the guy. And, you know, hubris sets in. And you start losing people. And you -- so, you have a drain of talent.

And then the thing that you have out there is, you have new competition. Bill Gates said to me in `98, when I interviewed him -- I said, "Bill, what do you worry about?" He said, "I worry about someone in a garage inventing some new technology I have never thought about." Well, the new technology in `98 in a garage was Google. They were in the garage. What's the new technology today that threatens them?

One of them could be a site like Facebook, because, if you about search, you do a search, you get thousands of answers. That's very inefficient. If you -- if you...

JEFFREY BROWN: Social media allows you to target it more.

KEN AULETTA: Target 15 of your friends or 20 of your friends, and they tell you: "No, I would buy that -- not that camera; I would buy this camera; I have it," you are going to trust your friends. So, that becomes what's called a vertical search that is a very potent potential opposition to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the world remains in flux, huh?

KEN AULETTA: In flux.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "Googled: The End of the World as We Know It." Ken Auletta, thanks so much.

KEN AULETTA: My pleasure.