Google has turned just about everything on its head, and not just by installing slippery dips and playground equipment. Its product - information - is supplied free to anyone with a computer, a tablet or a smartphone. When it created its Android operating system for smartphones, Google simply gave away the system, free, to any phone manufacturer that wanted to use it. Yet the company makes billions of dollars. About $30 billion this year, in fact.
"We had a great quarter," enthused Page, Google's CEO, announcing the company's latest financial results last month. Characteristically, he used Google's latest whiz-bang creation, Google+, to carry his announcement. Google+ is Page's challenge to Facebook's stranglehold on the digital social world, although it remains unclear how successful it might be. It was made available to the general public in September, and according to Page, it had 40 million users by the middle of last month. Facebook has 800 million active users.
Page's declaration of a "great quarter" was an understatement. Revenue for the three months to September rose 33 per cent over the same period the previous year to $US9.72 billion. Profit was up 26 per cent to $US2.73 billion. And during those three months, the company added 2585 employees, bringing its total workforce to 31,353.
At a time when much of the world was in recession, still recovering from one global financial crisis and worrying about another, it was the fourth straight quarter in which Google's revenue growth had been at least 20 per cent.
Information, in short, turns into gold in Google's hands. Yet Google doesn't sell any of the stupendous amounts of information it gathers about its users -which is to say, you and me. Legislators, privacy activists and those sceptical about Google's silver-tongued "Don't be evil" mantra, however, can hardly avoid worrying about a single corporation storing more information about its billions of users than any dictator in history could even imagine.
To undertake the tasks that Google insists improve our lives - a billion instant searches a day, the ability to find your way almost anywhere by Google Maps, the magic of pointing your camera at a building or monument or street corner and learning anything you might want to know about it, the use of ever-smarter hand-held devices into which you can speak a question in any language or even dialect and get an instant answer (or, for that matter, order a meal in Paris in English and have it instantly translated into French for the waiter), and the luxury of storing every last piece of your information in a cyberspace "cloud", knowing your computer could be stolen or destroyed and you still wouldn't lose its memory - requires its computers to learn immense amounts about those doing the asking.
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