Oprah Time: In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy

I bought this book automatically because I had previously read and enjoyed Levy’s previous works: Insanely Great, Hackers and Chaos. Given his heritage covering technology companies and personalities as both an author and a journalist, I was curious what he would make of Google.

The book is expansive and provides a lot of additional colour around Google, some of which I found of interest as I had worked at Yahoo! competing against Google and working with some of the early darlings of the web 2.0 movement – Flickr and Delicious. There were a couple of things that surprised me such as Google’s use of machine learning on areas like translation explained why grammar is still so bad in this area as it needs heuristics that lexicographers could provide similar to that offered by Crystal Semantics.

Overall it was interesting to see that as with most large organisations Google is not only fallible but run through with realpolitik and a fair bit of serendipity. This contrasts with the external perception of Google as the technological Übermensch. A classic example of this is the series of missteps Google made whilst competing in China, which are documented in the book. From staffing practices, promotional tactics and legal to technology; Google blew it’s chances and Baidu did a better job.

As an aside it was interesting to note that Google used queries on rival search engines to try and work out how to comply with Chinese government regulations, which is eerily like bad practices that Google accused Bing of last February in ‘hiybbprqag’-gate.

There is a curious myopia that runs through a lot of later Google product thinking that reminded me of the reality and perceptions that I was aware of existing inside Microsoft from the contact I have had with the organisation through the various different agencies I have worked at. A classic example of this is the Google view of a file-less future, which by implication assumes that people won’t have legacy documents or use services other than the Google cloud. It is a myopia that comes part of arrogance and a patronising attitude towards the consumer that Google always knows best about every aspect of their needs.

Contrast this with Apple and iTunes. Whilst Apple would like to sell you only content from the iTunes store, it recognises that you will have content from different sources: Amazon MP3s, ripped CDs, podcasts and self-created files that iTunes needs to play nicely with.

The ‘no files’ approach assumes ubiquitous bandwidth which is likely to be a fiction for a while. (Part of the reason why I am able to write this post is that I was stuck for half-a-day on a train journey to Wales enjoying patchy mobile phone coverage and a wi-fi free environment, which allowed me to focus on reading this book in hardback).  This approach smacks of the old data lock-in that Microsoft used to have with proprietary file formats for its Office documents.

Levy does a good job pulling all of this together and chronicling Google, but he fails to cast a critical eye over it all. I suspect that this is because he is too close to the company: the access that he gained enveloped him. Which is a shame as all the experience and insight Levy could bring to the book that would add value to the reader is omitted. Whilst In The Plex is an interesting historical document, it could be so much more.