Google are golden at the moment. Their search engine has been number one for as long as anyone can remember, they’ve just successfully gone public and now they’re churning out innovative and useful software at a rate of knots. I’ve been using the Google Toolbar for a few months and I appreciate its pop-up blocker and PageRank counter. That said, anyone who thought that Google’s software ambitions were limited to making IE add-ons was in for a shock.
First there was Gmail, which a lot of people took to be an April Fool, for that was when it was announced. Surely they couldn’t really be offering a gigabyte of storage they asked, but they were the fools, for they were wrong. However, the generous storage capacity isn’t the most interesting thing about Gmail. After all, Google have had a petabyte filesystem for some time and it’s likely to be quite a while before a significant number of users are approaching the limit of their one gigabyte allocation.
No, the most interesting thing about Gmail is its user interface. It’s as close as a web application has ever got to a desktop application. It’s been called audacious, for it tears up the rule book about what you can do with dynamic HTML. I’ve recently been fortunate enough to receive a Gmail invitation and it is amazing to see it in action. If you’d like see it too, leave a comment on this article (include your e-mail address) and I’ll mail you an invitation. I only have one invitation to give away like this, so the first person who asks for it gets it. Please don’t pester me for an invitation after that because I can’t oblige.
Not content with conquering search and web-mail, last week Google made their first inroads into the desktop, with the announcement of Google Desktop Search. Now you can put the power of Google to work on your desktop and you don’t need a huge cluster of Linux boxes to do so. All you need is the 446 KB setup file, although this isn’t without its problems. You have to have administrator rights to install the software, which my regular user account doesn’t have. I tried using RunAs, but this didn’t work because you have to run the installation as the user who is going to be using the search engine. The solution I had to adopt was to temporarily make my user account a member of the Administrators group. Not ideal. I’d also like a way to specify where to install the program and where to store the search indexes, which can get pretty large. Still, Google Desktop Search is beta software, as indeed is Gmail.
It currently indexes Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail, Microsoft Office documents, text documents and the IE cache. Other file formats are sure to follow. I’ve no idea how it works but it just does, with the absence of fuss that we’ve come to expect from Google. Near-instantaneous full text searching from the desktop is nothing new, but what is new is that the strength of the Google brand should ensure that it’s adopted like never before. Google beat Apple and Microsoft to it and they even have the cheek to put a Microsoft-esque icon in the shell notification area whilst they’re at it. I was going to claim—like others have done—that Google have delivered the promise of WinFS today, until I educated myself about what WinFS is really about.
There’s been much less fanfare around the fact that there’s now a Google Search Appliance for the enterprise. This is a funky-looking yellow box that you can mount in your server rack. It contains a customised version of Linux for running the search engine, and I assume that it isn’t limited to searching the same file types as the dekstop search product. It really is Google-in-a-box—so now there’s no excuse for knowledge workers wasting a quarter of their time searching for documents, which is a statistic I’ve seen quoted.
One of the Web’s worst-kept secrets is that a Google Browser is on the way. It’s hard to see what value the kids from Mountain View can bring to the browser over and above the likes of Mozilla Firefox, but I guess such lack of vision is why I’m not one of Google’s new millionaire staff members. Some have speculated that a Google browser would be little more than a branded variant of Mozilla, but I’m hoping for something a little more compelling.
Google are riding the crest of a wave at the moment and the general feeling is that they can do no wrong. Many are even saying that Google are the new Microsoft and if nothing else, the company must surely be the largest blip on Redmond’s radar since Netscape. It’s not all good news though. Some people fear the power of Google as it positions itself to become the gatekeeper of the modern information age at home and at work, both online and offline. In spite of their often heard “don’t be evil” mantra, Google’s commitment to privacy remains a cause for concern, as does its position on web standards and accessibility.
I don’t think Microsoft are beaten just yet. They’ve been around over two decades longer than the pretender to their throne, and last time I checked, their core products were doing rather well. And of course they have a lot of money. Google are producing some genuinely good software that benefits people, but I think that most of the hyperbole about them being the new Microsoft is driven by their current golden reputation. Good reputations are hard for companies to build and even harder to keep. It doesn’t take much to screw up. A salutary lesson for Google is that Microsoft used to be in a position where they could do no wrong and this lasted for years, probably culminating in the Windows 95 launch. Then a raft of security problems and most recently, a perceived inability to keep their Windows Longhorn strategy on track, took the shine off their reputation. It would only take a high visibility occurrence of being evil for the same thing to happen to Google.