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Google's Presidents' Day Address

A company exec's rallying of Google employees leads to discussion on future offerings.

Thomas Claburn

February 17, 2009

4 Min Read

In the midst of one of the worst economic crises in American history, Google's senior VP of product management, Jonathan Rosenberg, has challenged Google employees to strive for greatness and to pursue the promise of the Internet.

Rosenberg's 4,400-word essay, initially written for internal distribution at Google and subsequently posted on the company's blog, begins as a response to President Obama's inaugural address. The passionate, sprawling mediation on the future attempts to frame the Internet as a way forward, as a positive, progressive path toward something better.

"At Google we are all technology optimists," writes Rosenberg, as if he were channeling Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto from the mid-1990s. "We intrinsically believe that the wave upon which we surf, the secular shift of information, communications, and commerce to the Internet, is still in its early stages, and that its result will be a preponderance of good."

In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke of "new instruments" to meet our new challenges, backed by old values. For Rosenberg, the Internet is one such instrument, because "the challenges the world faces are, to a large degree, information problems."

That may be, but they're often also economic, political, religious, social, and health problems, too, problems not solved with a click.

Google's stated mission "is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Given 1.4 million people around the globe with Internet access and 3 billion with mobile phones, Rosenberg sees only growing demand for information and for search.

"Solving search is a long-term quest for perfection, but the transition of information from scarce and expensive to ubiquitous and free will conclude far sooner," he writes. "We will then bear witness to a true democratization of information, a time when almost everyone who wants to be online will be online, able to access virtually every bit of the world's information."

Rosenberg's vision, where "every fellow citizen of the world will have in his or her pocket the ability to access the world's information," is inspiring, but it's far from a done deal. His lofty missive may stir the heart about what's possible, but it gives no consideration to the practical reality of information access in a world where government censorship and Internet filtering are common.

Google has consistently backed the creation of more information as a way to make its search service more valuable. And while Rosenberg appears to be committed to that position, he also acknowledges that a lot of the information online is worthless.

"No one argues the value of free speech, but the vast majority of stuff we find on the Web is useless," he writes. "The clamor of junk threatens to drown out voices of quality." Continuing in that vein, Rosenberg argues that the Internet needs systems that encourage the creation of high-quality content creation and editing "because without them we will all sink in a cesspool of drivel." He adds, "We need to make it easier for the experts, journalists, and editors that we actually trust to publish their work under an authorship model that is authenticated and extensible, and then to monetize in a meaningful way."

That's what Google's Knol was supposed to be.

Amid catchy but fragile metaphors like "data is the sword of the 21st century, those who wield it well, the Samurai," Rosenberg does offer some frank talk. He admits, for example, that Google "still [has] a long way to go in making Web-based applications robust enough for businesses."

That's something you don't hear from Google's enterprise product managers.

And Rosenberg goes further, presenting scenarios of that future many would consider unsettling. He contemplates Google knowing enough about a person to surf the Web on his or her behalf, anticipating questions before they're asked. He proposes that car rental companies could offer a 30% discount to drivers who agreed to have their speed limit compliance tracked by GPS reporting. What's not to like about a Big Brother that keeps you safe?

Small wonder that Google still has to defend itself against privacy advocates.

For all that, it's hard to fault Rosenberg's rallying cry to the troops in these dire times; perilous as the future is with Google, it would be far worse without it.

"As Googlers our responsibility is nothing less than to help support the future of information, the global transition in how it is created, shared, consumed, and used to solve big problems," he concludes. "Our challenge is to steer incessantly toward greatness, to never think small when we can think big, to strive on with the work Larry and Sergey began over ten years ago, and from this task we will not be moved."

What else could Google have up its sleeve? InformationWeek has published an independent analysis of this topic. Download the report here (registration required).

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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