Google is doing WHAT?

Its motto is 'Don't do evil' -- but it looks like anything and everything else imaginable is pretty much fair game

With a skyrocketing stock price, fanboy hysteria and -- most importantly -- really useful products, Google is the prima donna of tech for the new millennium.

The company is so active that it's hard to keep track of everything it does. And, just when you get a good handle on its litany of Web applications, promising lab innovations and unheralded research projects, it seems to turn on a dime -- a difficult move for a US$167 billion company with 19,000 employees -- and invent something new. Who would have thought a search site company would get involved in laying a fiber-optic undersea cable between the US and Japan?

Of course, not everything has worked out for the company, as these flubs, flops and failures illustrate. JupiterResearch analyst Michael Gartenberg, for one, isn't put off by the wide range of directions the company has taken and occasional miscues.

"The whole Google empire started as a research project, and it's a core in their DNA to try and discover new things and figure out how to monetize them," he says. "When you have a market cap like they do and the cash cow in the guise of paid search, they can keep experimenting. You need the financial wherewithal to support these projects, and plenty of smart people to carry them out. Google does not seem short on either."

Truth and rumors

Here's an update on some of Google's most interesting projects, including some new details about Android, energy initiatives, language translation and a new facial recognition search technology. Also, the Web is rife with wild rumors about clandestine Google projects, so we asked the secretive company to comment on some of the more prominent ones to try to find out what's really going on.

Android

Although the "gPhone" never materialized, the company has been planning something better: an operating system for phones called Android. It's partly a direct competitor to Windows Mobile and partly an experiment in open-source development. Recently, the company held a contest for third-party developers to create innovative apps for Android. 1,700 programmers took up the challenge.

Examples from the contest include wayfinding apps that tap into the handheld's Global Positioning System chip. One application lets users find a taxi based on where they are. Another app lets users find their friends' locations and what they're doing and lets them create plans with them, with all the information tracked in real time. Some of these apps sounds a bit theoretical at this point -- the platform and phones will ship in the second half of 2008 -- but Google did post a PDF that shows the top 50 winners in the first round of the challenge, along with screenshots.

Erick Tseng, Android product manager, says it's a massive shift in thinking from the phone dictating what you can do to the device being open to any kind of content, service, provider and media.

"There are clear benefits to the ecosystem, not just [for] the users, but [also for] developers, carriers, providers," Tseng says. "Whatever phone you use today, think about the difficulty of getting content -- Android has unfettered access to content. You never have to think about, because I am on this service or this provider I can't get certain content."

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John Brandon

Computerworld
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