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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How Google Ended the Browser Wars

Posted By on Tue, Aug 9, 2011 at 11:35 AM


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.)

The genius of Google, as James Gleick notes

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.

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Dan Mitchell


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