As from the beginning of 2020, Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., became the third technology company to join a very exclusive club – the $1 trillion market value club. Alongside Apple and Microsoft, who are both worth $1.38 trillion and $1.27 trillion respectively, Google’s value has passed the 12-zeros point; a number that most of us can’t even begin to fathom.
While a lot of folk will argue with how can a single company become so obscenely rich, especially when there’s still terrible poverty in the world, most would be quite impressed at how a company that started life in college, between two friends, became one of the powerful on Earth.
But it’s not just the enormous wealth that Google has achieved that makes it a success, it’s how the company has redefined our technology over the past twenty-plus years.
In the Beginning
Although officially launched in 1998, Google actually started life a few years before in 1995 when Larry Page first met Sergey Brin.
The pair, according to Google’s own story, disagreed with most everything when they first met. Page, at the time, was considering Stanford as his grad school, and Brin was assigned to show him around the campus.
A year later, however, and the pair were formulating a research project that could analyse the then infant Internet, and reveal the important websites, and what other sites related to them. It was a search engine project, coded by Page, Brin and a third member, and lead coder on the project, Scott Hassan.
The three were PhD students, and in search of a dissertation idea. According to legend, Page was tinkering with the mathematical properties of the World Wide Web, to better understand its structure. His supervising teacher, Terry Winograd, liked the idea and encouraged Page to pursue it.
The concept was to focus on the problem of finding out which web pages link to any given pages, based on the consideration that the number and nature of the links, known as backlinks, was valuable information about the website itself. Hassan began writing the code based on Page’s concept, and the project started to grow.
Sergey Brin, at the time, was working on the Stanford Digital Library Project, a project that Page was a part of and involved creating a single, and integrated digital library. With the three students working together on their project, it soon began to build momentum and was named ‘Backrub’.
Backrub was a very basic search engine and database that would catalogue the web’s backlinks, and together with an algorithm called PageRank, it was able to trawl the URLs on the early Internet and rank pages by their importance.
At around this time Hassan left the project to pursue a career in robotics, so that left Page and Brin to control the fledgling Backrub search engine. Backrub then, in 1996, used Stanford’s servers and main webpage, as a starting point, with the webcrawler Page had coded spanning out into the ever-growing Internet. Toward the end of 1996, the total indexable HTML URLs had reached 75.2 million, and had downloaded over 200GB of content – which was having a strain on Stanford’s technical resources. As Page quoted regarding Backrub. “BackRub is written in Java and Python and runs on several Sun Ultras and Intel Pentiums running Linux. The primary database is kept on a Sun Ultra II with 28GB of disk.”
A number of others soon joined the project and contributed to the code and the writing of the paper about the Backrub project. Alan Steremberg, Rajeev Motwani, Terry Winograd (who later co-authored more papers on the project), Hector Garica-Molina, and Jeff Ullman, are all cited as having played an important part on the project, and helped begin to form the foundations of what would come to be the world’s most popular search engine.
Backrub’s utilisation of the PageRank algorithm is what made it such a successful tool in the early days of the search engine. Although influenced on a similar page ranking and site scoring algorithm called RankDex, PageRank handled the information it gained differently, and produced a more accurate result.
In a time when other search engines handled only small amounts of the growing Internet – Altavista, the biggest name in search engines at the time claimed to handle roughly 20-million queries per day – PageRank was beginning to outperform the competition.
The improved search quality of PageRank and Backrub was key to the project’s success. Counting the backlinks to a given page gave the searcher an approximation of the page’s important or quality. PageRank went a step further by not counting links from all pages equally, but by normalising the number of links on a page.
In The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine paper by Brin and Page, the description of PageRank is defined as follows:
“We assume page A has pages T1…Tn which point to it (i.e., are citations). The parameter d is a damping factor which can be set between 0 and 1. We usually set d to 0.85. There are more details about d in the next section. Also C(A) is defined as the number of links going out of page A. The PageRank of a page A is given as follows:
PR(A) = (1-d) + d (PR(T1)/C(T1) + … + PR(Tn)/C(Tn))
Note that the PageRanks form a probability distribution over web pages, so the sum of all web pages’ PageRanks will be one.
PageRank or PR(A) can be calculated using a simple iterative algorithm, and corresponds to the principal eigenvector of the normalized link matrix of the web. Also, a PageRank for 26 million web pages can be computed in a few hours on a medium size workstation.”
By 1997, though, Page et al decided that Backrub needed to be upgraded, based on the wealth and volume of information it now processed. The name, too, wasn’t felt like it was up to scratch, and in a brainstorming session the team behind Backrub and other graduate students were mulling over prospective names; names that would relate to the huge amount of data the engine was indexing.
Stanford graduate student Sean Anderson, suggested the name Googolplex, which was then shortened by Page to Googol. By the way, a Googol is the digit 1 followed by one hundred zeros, while the Googolplex is a 1 followed by a Googol zeros.
According to Internet legend, Anderson quickly checked to see if the domain name was taken, but he accidentally entered ‘google.com’ instead of the agreed ‘googol.com’. Page liked the name better, and registered the domain name to Brin and himself on September 15th, 1997.
Within a year, the Google search engine was gaining ground at an incredible rate, with an index of around 60-million pages despite it still being labelled as a Beta. Thanks, in part, to an article written on Salon.com, that praised the search engine’s accuracy and being more technologically more innovate than the then popular, and overloaded search portal sites, Google’s popularity began to grow.
At around that time, the Google search engine itself was still housed in a server at Stanford – albeit one that was designed with a custom case made from Mega Blocks. Investment was needed, and it came in the form of Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, who invested $100,000 in the fledgling company.
The cash injection proved to be the boost Google needed, and the team moved the company out from the Stanford dorms and into the garage of a good friend, Susan Wojcicki – the current CEO of YouTube. Alongside the straining servers were a number of old PCs, a bright blue carpet and a ping pong table.
Early 1999 both Brin and Page decided to sell Google, and as such approached Excite, a web portal rival that was launched four years earlier, for the sum of a $1,000,000. George Bell, CEO of Excite, declined the offer; the pair even offered $750,000, but still Bell refused. As such, Brin, Page and the team took the company to a new home, offices at 165 University Avenue in Palo Alto. From there, Google’s infrastructure expanded considerably. It soon outgrew the hastily cobbled together, off the shelf computer parts that represented more of a fire hazard than the future of Internet search engines, and moved into more custom parts and components – although it has to be said, the company has always tried to adopt a server that offers best CPU per dollar, and not absolute performance.
From there, the company ended up leasing an entire complex of buildings in Mountain View from Silicon Graphics. The site where it is currently located.
The beginning of the 2000s saw a huge increase in demand from the Google search engine. Thanks to Google’s simple design, greatly improved accuracy and speedy results, Internet users in their millions flocked to the search engine.
This increase in demand allowed Google to start selling advertising space associated with the keywords the users would enter into the search engine. Ads themselves were initially text-based, to keep the overall loading speed of the search results as fast as possible. Keywords were sold starting at $.05 per click, and was based on a pay-per-click model of advertising created by Goto.com.
Goto.com eventually changed names to Overture Services, and sued Google over possible infringements to its advertising model. In time, the case was settled out of court, and Yahoo! eventually ended up buying Overture Services, with Google offering stock options to Yahoo! for a permanent license of the advertising model.
This steady increase in revenue solidified Google’s market share, and allowed the company to invest in both its growing technology and people. Hiring engineers, sales teams, and even having the first company dog, Google quickly became the lead technology company to work for. Its attitude to work-life became a model of modern businesses to copy. With expansive breakout rooms, entertainment available in the form of gaming, quiet areas, and a huge social calendar, the Google lifestyle was embraced by startups the world over, and adopted by many already founded companies. Although the work-play lifestyle has been taken to the extreme in many cases, and is often poked fun of, its was proved to be a substantially better workplace to inhabit than the more conventional, shirt and tie, stuck in a booth and coding attitudes from the previous century.
By the mid-2000 Google was valued at $52 billion, which made it one of the world’s wealthiest media companies. With the cash generated from the selling of shares, the company further expanded its Google services, from beyond the search engine and into web mail, Google Earth, the Chrome operating system, and the acquisition of a mobile operating system called Android, for $50 million.
This put Google in direct competition with a lot of other tech companies, most notably Microsoft. With Google rivalling Bing, and Internet Explorer being rivalled by the then newly released Chrome browser, Microsoft wasn’t too happy. It finally came to ahead when one of Microsoft’s former vice-presidents, Kai-Fu Lee, quit the company to work for Google – a move that Microsoft tried in vain to block by suing Lee citing his contract. However, a confidential settlement was once again reach outside of court.
From 2005 to the turn of the decade, Google’s services and the services it purchased ballooned substantially. With services such as Google+, Google Images, Google News, Google finance, Google Books, Google Patents, Google Scholar, Google Alerts, Google Custom Search, and Google Translate, the company was rapidly taking over every single instance of a user’s Internet life.
This was especially so when Google bought the online video sharing platform YouTube, for the princely sum of $1.65 billion. With Google’s backing, YouTube became the world’s biggest video sharing and viewing platform, attracting up to 81% of the 15 to 21 year olds in the U.S. alone and earning in excess of $15 billion per year.
2010, and Beyond
Despite the number of Google services launched over the years, there’s very few of them still up and running. True, there’s a lot of Google’s ad services, statistical tools, and applications still in use, but the likes of iGoogle, Google Spaces, Picasa, and Google+, and soon to be discontinued Google Clips, Google Hangouts, and Google Cloud Print, have either all gone or are in the process of being assigned to the digital graveyard.
That’s not a bad thing, though. For a company to be successful it needs to branch out into new territories, and test the water. If it’s lucky enough to have the financial backing that Google enjoys, then it can take a punt on something entirely new and afford to lose some money if it doesn’t. But for the most part, Google’s services have only increased the power behind this once two-man setup.
So from humble beginnings to being one of the most powerful and wealthiest companies in the world, Google led the way in the new age Internet. It changed the way we interact with the Internet, and with the technology we use daily. It became a household phrase, ‘to Google something’, or, ‘Google it’, and it employed thousands while providing an income to tens of hundreds of small businesses around the world.
It’s come a long way since its LEGO-cased server back in college. From a mere search engine on the Internet, to the devices we hold in our hands, and the future of gaming in the form of the Google Stadia. Google has powered its way into our lives, and through Android, it’s future is looking exceedingly bright.
The History of Android
We can’t have a history of Google without bringing in a history of the Google-owned mobile operating system, Android. With over 2.5 billion monthly active users, and over 24,000 different Android powered devices, this OS has quickly eclipsed the competition. But how did it all begin?
According to stats gathered from the end of 2019, there are over 2.5 billion active Android devices in the world – that we know of. There’s also an estimated one billion that remain active, but hidden behind layers of security, or not accessing the Internet, so statistical data can’t access the OS of the device, and possibly another 2 billion that are dormant, stuck in a drawer somewhere when the user upgraded to a newer model. Overall, that makes a possible 5.5 billion Android phones and tablets. The current population of the planet is, at the time of writing – according to Worldometer – 7,809,103,400 people. There’s not quite one Android device for every person on the planet, but give it time.
Android’s popularity as a mobile platform is phenomenal. It’s the largest installed base of any mobile platform, and it’s growing faster with each passing year. But why?
Part of that success is down to Android’s open marketplace, although it can be said the open marketplace that Android enjoys is something of a double-edged blade. It’s a great platform for developers to code on, there’s a powerful framework in place to build excellent apps and take advantage of a device’s hardware resources. The Google Play Store enjoys over 1.5 billion downloads a month, so it’s the perfect place for developers, and companies to get their products to the greater population of users.
However, it’s all about the software. Devices that are driven by Android generally enjoy better hardware features than the other leading competition – iPhones, in case you’re wondering. Features such as fast-charging, wireless charging, universal chargers, better battery life and removable battery and storage, lower pricing for better technology, serviceability, and better customisation are what most mobile users put as their main reasons for choosing their devices. It just so happens that all those devices are Android powered.
Hardware aside for the moment, how did we get to the Android operating system we see, on average, 2,617 times a day we touch our phones and tablets? Let’s find out.
Dreaming of Electric Sheep
The beginning of Android can be traced back to 2003 when the company, Android Inc. was founded by Andy Rubin, Rich Miner, Nick Sears and Chris White. Initially, the goal of the company was to create a better operating system and connective software for digital cameras; where the camera would be plugged into the PC, and intelligently the Android software would take over and automatically back up the images to a remote server.
However, the pitch for investment didn’t yield enough attention, and so the team decided that the decreasing market of digital cameras wasn’t the way to go, and instead focused on pitching Android as a cell phone operating system that could compete with the likes of Symbian and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile.
Rubin originally described the Android project as having “tremendous potential in developing smarter mobile devices that are more aware of its owner’s location and preferences.” This, bear in mind, is long before the concept of smartphones.
Within a couple of years the fledgling Android company was in financial difficulties, but managed to hold together thanks to investment from friends of the team. In 2005, though, the company’s luck changed when one of the biggest tech firms in the world took an interest in what was being developed.
When Google bought Android in July 2005 for around $50 million, little was known with regards to the company. Many speculated that this was Google’s attempt to enter the mobile market, which they were ultimately correct of course, but others considered it as Google mass-buying smaller, almost bust tech companies with the thought that some IP may be worth something if further developed.
Rubin, Miner and White joined the newly formed Android/Google team, and the course of the next few years, Rubin and the team began to develop a mobile operating system using the Linux kernel as the base. In return, Google marketed the new Android as a flexible operating system for handheld devices, ideal for users and easily upgradeable. With a number of hardware manufacturers and software partners lined up, it was only a matter of time until the first version of Android was to be released.
In 2007, shortly before Android version 1.0 was released, Google designer Irina Blok independently designed an open source logo for Android. The little green Android robot, supposedly called Bugdroid by the Android team at Google, quickly became the icon behind the operating system, which eventually led to Google adopting the logo when it launched the first iteration of the OS.
In September 23rd 2008, the very first Android powered smartphone was released, the T-Mobile G1, or HTC Dream. The phone featured a 3.2-inch pop-up touchscreen, which revealed a QWERTY keyboard, and a number of physical buttons lined up along the bottom. Admittedly, it wasn’t the greatest smartphone to ever be released, but where the hardware may have been lacking, the operating system certainly wasn’t.
Android version 1.0 had some fantastic features that set it aside from Apple’s iPhone that was released a year earlier. With the first version, users had access to the following:
Access to OS Folders
Access to email servers via POP3, IMAP4 and SMTP
Google Maps with Street View
Instant Messaging, text messages and MMS
Notification – and the genius idea of notifications sliding down from the top
YouTube Video Player
WiFi and Bluetooth support
Plus, a host of other operating system necessities, such as alarm clock, calculator, picture gallery and so on.
Together with the influence that Google had already attained over the years, Android became the mobile gateway for users to access their Google content in a single, handheld device. And it was a massive success.
With version 1.0 out to the public, it didn’t take too long for version 1.1 to follow; less than five months in fact. Although 1.1 was a simple update, version 1.5, or Cupcake as it was named, contained some more features on top of the already impressive catalogue the original came pre-loaded with.
The choice of confectionary naming, by the way, was thanks to Android project manager Ryan Gibson. Cupcake was the first and the naming convention followed in alphabetical order until version 10, where it’s returned to a numbering system.
Google, and Android, have always been quite secretive about the naming convention. There are a million rumours out there as to why it’s sweet-related. Some of our favourites are: because Android sweetens the lives of its users; Because software developers see food as objects; Because Google wants to highlight the problems with obesity; and our personal go-to theory: Because if you jumble up all the words they form an anagram of the location of secret files held by the Illuminati that would shake the social order of the world. Isn’t the Internet a wonderful thing.
Anyway, the numbering and naming system for phones continued:
Donut – version 1.6
Éclair – version 2.0 to 2.1
Froyo – version 2.2 to 2.2.3
Gingerbread – version 2.3 to 2.3.7
Until version 3.0, Honeycomb was released. While this wasn’t so much of a significant phone release, it was the first Android version designed for devices with larger screen, in particular tablets.
Ice Cream Sandwich – version 4.0 to 4.0.4
Jelly Bean – version 4.1 to 4.3.1
KitKat – version 4.4 to 4.4.4
Lollipop – version 5.0 to 5.1.1
Marshmallow – version 6.0 to 6.0.1
Nougat – version 7.0 to 7.1.2
Oreo – version 8.0 to 8.1
Pie – version 9
The latest release is Android 10, but Android 11 is just around the corner at the time of writing, so expect to be using that on a select few devices by the time you read this. And one more thing with regards to the naming, or lack of it from Android 10, Google have stated that naming after sweets was not inclusive to international users – either by these foods not being internationally known or difficult to pronounce in some languages. But, as you can well imagine, there are plenty of ‘alternative’ theories around that suggest otherwise; and some of them don’t even mention the Illuminati!
All Hail Our Android Overlords!
When Google first launched Android it wasn’t too concerned with the likes of Artificial Intelligence, or Augmented Reality, it had a difficult enough job selling a new mobile OS into a playing field that was already dominated by the likes of Apple, Blackberry, Symbian/Nokia and Windows Mobile. But Android found its place, and overtook the lot.
Now Google has incorporated AI into every aspect of Android, in particular the Google digital personal assistant, the Google Nest range of intelligent home devices and Google Stadia. The big leaps forward in Android-driven technologies, and not just the hardware, will be rise of the AI in all things connected to the Internet, and in particular, connected to Google.
While that may sound like the start of some technological, post-apocalyptic scenario, the Artificial Intelligence that’s provided to us via Android for our homes isn’t likely to suddenly launch an all-out nuclear strike on humanity, or send killer robots from the future to wipe out potential leaders of the resistance. It simply means being able to control your technological life in better, and more personalised ways than ever before.
With Android-powered devices, you’re able to ask the AI assistant to play a random track, and based on what you’ve previously listened to, there’s a good chance you’ll like the random piece of music that will be selected and played for you. The same can be said for online purchasing, where advertising based on what you’ve bought previously may make you consider something else.
It’s all clever stuff, and although it may seem a little intrusive to be analysing what you’re likely to want to watch, listen to, buy or do next, it’s designed to help you get the most from the near-overwhelming immensity of the Internet.
Augmented Reality is another feature that will grow with further development, taking on more personal and commercial success than simply catching Pokemon, or viewing a variety of virtual critters in your living room. Although it’s great, it’s a little clumsy at the moment, but that will change as the technology, software and hardware advanced over the coming years.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that Android will eventually evolve into something else. There is speculation that Google Fuchsia is the first stepping stone to a new OS that will eventually replace Android, and one that could not only span the mobile device marketplace, but also see its way on to the desktop, much in the same way that macOS 11 – Big Sur – has blurred the lines between the mobile and the desktop.
All that, however, remains to be seen. For the present, Android is looking stronger than ever, and looks to stand tall alongside Google for some years to come.