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.)
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
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
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.