RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Is Google everything it's cracked up to be?

September 5, 2005

It's often hard to tell what's a gimmick, and what's a real business tool. As I sit staring thoughtfully at Google's stripped-down, Zenlike home page, I can't decide whether it's another Clippy (the annoying animated paperclip character introduced in Microsoft Word 97), or another paperclip (which is so ubiquitous and essential in business that we don't even think of it as technology anymore).

It could be either, or even both. Google has left the desktop in Microsoft's grasp, but staked out an even bigger territory for itself: all human information. The business world runs on information, of course, but is it of the kind that Google can smilingly provide? The purview of Google is vast. It has invented or bought:

SMS, a service in which you can text-message a Google number on your cell phone for free and find out weather conditions nationwide, movie times, driving directions, area codes, dictionary definitions, local business listings and stock quotes, Gmail: Email Google-style, Scholar, which can provide citations to thousands of academic journal papers, conference proceedings and the like, Groups, to create your own discussion forums, Froogle, which seeks out low prices on products, Print, which will find books that contain your search words. It does a full-text search of the book contents, Catalog, which will search mail-order catalogs for you, Google Maps: scrolling maps, Blogger: Create your own blog, Google Earth, a 3-D representation of the earth's surface, Images, to find pictures on the Web, Translate: Read Romanian Web sites in English, Directory, to browse the Web by topic, Desktop Search, to find things on your local computer, Hello, to send photos by instant messenger, Picasa, to manage those photos. The scope of these information sources and searches is breathtaking. Other companies, such as Yahoo and Microsoft, have been scrambling to catch up with Google for a long time, and are having a hard time of it. I have a GMail account, I've used SMS in the line of business, and I've also used Google Maps to look at my apartment complex. I suspect most people look at their own neighborhoods first. I can imagine a businessperson armed with nothing but a cell phone getting directions, finding restaurants and checking the area codes of strange calls. I can see professional organizations blogging and creating groups for themselves. I can picture microbusinesses finding deals on Froogle.

Yet my inner curmudgeon is never out to lunch, and he is sniggering at me. Google Maps' satellite imagery is often behind the real world by anywhere from days to years, depending on how remote the area is. Some densely populated places can be magnified satisfactorily, but lesser ones stay stubbornly wide-angle. GMail has been little better for me than any of my other numerous accounts. SMS gives me little that I don't already have with a phone book, a laptop and a local map in the glove compartment. I get good deals from merchants, not from Froogle.

Many of the images so quickly available on Google are actually copyrighted, and are consequently almost useless in my stream of commerce. I don't need a blog, and neither do most companies I know. Ditto groups. I suppose that Google Earth might be useful to land developers. A search using Print for "Starbucks" brought back more than 7,500 pages of book listings, far too many to peruse. A search for "business technology" gave up a much more modest 2,200 pages, but still too many to actually look through.

There is even more in the pipeline. Google has a page for its "labs," where the newest information sources are queuing up for release. There is Google Ride Finder, to find a taxi, limousine or shuttle, keeping track of where they are, available currently in only a dozen major cities, and with only a few companies participating. All of New York has only two companies in the program. Vehicles show up as little colored balloons on maps. Google Video will make it possible for you to search TV programs and videos by text descriptions and closed captions. You can see a still of the video, or even sometimes the video clips themselves.

If you want to try out the full toolbox for yourself, go to www.google.comand click on the "more" link to get to the big list. Let me know if you find return on investment in it. Right now, I'd rate the whole thing as a kind of office coffee machine-useful and friendly, but limited, and something I can do without as long as my preferred alternative exists.

Altom is a systems interaction designer for Indiana University, based at IUPUI. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim@elementassoc.com.
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