How Google Ended the Browser Wars
Today is the 16th anniversary of Netscape's initial public offering. It occurs to me that many of you might be only vaguely aware of Netscape, and of what it meant to us in the mid-'90s. That's because many of you were toddlers, or perhaps not even born yet.
That's depressing and mindblowing, but it also has implications for the medium-term future that we're just now starting to understand. What happens when the younger generation grows up with entirely different means of communication and media consumption -- and even modes of thought -- than the older one did? We saw the results of a similar shift in the '60s, when the first TV generation came of age.
What are you people going to do?
Of course, it turns out that Netscape is but a historical footnote, and browsers aren't even all that important, except as simple tools to access the Web. The real story to emerge from the dot-com boom is the story of Google. Netscape' Navigator browser certainly changed the world, but only inasmuch as it (and other browsers) allowed Google to dominate the world.
The "browser wars" never really made much sense. Even as they were raging, I wondered what all the fuss was about. "Portals" like Yahoo, Excite, and InfoSeek were trying to tie themselves to particular browsers, and browsers to particular portals, but the fact was that any browser could be used to get anywhere on the Internet, and building portals was a silly waste of time. What mattered was where online people went, and as the decade wore on, they increasingly went to Google (and from there, of course, to everywhere else, but Google's success rests squarely on the fact that it is the No. 1 point of departure.)
The genius of Google, as James Gleick notes in the latest New York Review of Books, is that rather than concentrating on keeping users on its site, it concentrated on taking them to other sites. Before Google, the people who ran search engines believed that holding on to users was the way to success. Google knew that it was just the opposite. Other search engines tried to turn themselves into portals that contained most of what people wanted. Google knew that what people wanted was the Web as a whole, easily searchable. "Portals did not want their search functions to be too good," Gleick writes (emphasis his).
That seems insane now, but it was the dominant thinking at the time. Even at Wired Digital, perhaps the Web-savviest online publication, where I worked in the mid-90s, there was a bias against "linking offsite." Wired invented a search engine, HotBot, that was pretty much like all the other search engines -- crappy. (Actually, it was slightly better than most, but not as good as the best at the time -- AltaVista, which is a whole other, tragic story.)
Having decided that quality results were the way to go, Google developed algorithms to put the best finds at the top of its results list. Before Google, it was a crapshoot whether using a search engine would even help you find a page you knew existed.
"In barely a decade," Gleick notes, "Google has made itself a global brand bigger than Coca-Cola or GE; it has created more wealth faster than any company in history; it dominates the information economy. How did that happen? It happened more or less in plain sight."
Gleick's article is a survey of a bunch of new books about Google, but for many people, the article might be enough (I'd also recommend Gleick's own recent book, The Information.)
Google's business success is one thing. Its effect on the culture and the economy is another. "How thoroughly and how radically Google has already transformed the information economy has not been well understood," Gleick writes. And he gets to the heart of Google's enterprise more sharply than most: "The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention. These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive. Attention is what we, the users, give to Google, and our attention is what Google sells -- concentrated, focused, and crystallized."
So Google sells us all to advertisers, just as commercial media has been doing since the first ad was sold. (Which makes all the "Is Google a media company?" arguments -- and Google's insistence that it isn't -- that much more amusing.) Any such business is going to involve troubling compromises. Google has been assailed for using the work of others for its own gain ("aggregating" news stories, copying books); for breaching people's privacy rights; for essentially collaborating with the Chinese government to censor the Internet; and for monopolizing online advertising, among other things.
All of those are problematic, but it helps to recognize that things could be worse. It could be, say, Microsoft doing those things, possibly in much worse ways. Google truly has tried to adhere to its "Don't Be Evil" motto, coined by its founders when the company was launched.
As Gleick notes, the motto is often misquoted as "Do No Evil," and there's a big difference there. If the company tried to live up to the latter, it would never have succeeded as it has.
Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, The Chicago Tribune, and many others.