Google leads the charge with simple innovations

INTERNET search provider Google is perhaps the last survivor of the dot-com era to sport a geek-chic spirit.

Six years after its inception, the design ethic of the world's top search engine remains decidedly spare, even spartan - but it works.

From gag searches for 'weapons of mass destruction' to recruitment advertisements in the form of maths conundrums, there's still an air of college cheek about Google, long since shed by its jaded peers.

It can still afford to flaunt its pioneering flair. In recent months, Google has introduced one groundbreaking service after another, including the 1GB-capacity Gmail web service and the recent Desktop Search, blindsiding major competitors such as Microsoft and Yahoo.

Like its core search engine, these new Google tools are designed to be useful, nifty, yet cunningly simple: Not something many software firms seem to understand is of value to everyday users.

The rival giants are now scrambling to catch up with their own belated offerings.

Has Google hit upon a new formula to revive the flagging industry's fortunes? One of the corporate principles listed on its website - You can make money without doing evil - has the ring of the old 'new economy' idealism.

It could still hold true, if Google's revenue model is any indication. Quite remarkably, Google's most useful services are still provided free to the vast majority of its global users, absolutely free.

The company makes its money from advertisements and ad tracking, and by licensing search technologies for corporate use.

For now, Google the business has the sceptics silenced. Its recent runaway success is more reminiscent of the headiest boom-time hype than today's sober market, but the company is in fact making money, as a solid quarterly earnings report indicated last week.

Since its August initial public offering, Google stock has enjoyed dizzying hikes of more than 120 per cent.

The company's current market value of more than US$50 billion (S$83.7 billion) exceeds that of its more seasoned rival, Yahoo, and overshadows even blue-chip stalwarts Boeing, McDonald's and Sony.

Analysts such as Gartner group's Ms Denise Garcia suggest that Google could come to challenge Microsoft for influence over the future of popular computing.

Certainly, it offers solutions that become more valuable as our daily load of information increases in volume and complexity.

Search engines, a field in which Google dominates indisputably, will help provide pertinent bridges between islands of specialised knowledge across time and distance. This will continue to accelerate the pace of creative co-mingling and advancement of ideas, globally and from the ground up.

Information arbitrage, often a basis for competitive advantage or intellectual proprietorship, is quickly eroded in the face of alternative sources of information and expertise.

As Google searches become more powerful and pervasive, it becomes that much harder to fool the customer - whether it be price comparisons, market intelligence or, for that matter, competing ideologies.

There are, of course, pitfalls. If security is Microsoft's primary bugbear, then Google's will surely be privacy. A medium that facilitates free access to information is bound to attract abuse, and not only in providing unimpeded access to undesirable material.

Critics have already warned that Gmail's inclusion of targeted ads in private e-mail - selected on the basis of the context of the mail message - is tantamount to a privacy breach.

Google search has shown itself vulnerable to identity theft or 'phishing' attacks by hackers, a problem exacerbated by its Desktop Search tool, which tracks information across all kinds of documents on a user's hard disk.

Undoubtedly, Google's agility in balancing its technology, commercial interests and user concerns will be monitored closely.

But it will clearly remain an important mover in the next phase of the Internet's development. Its commercial and technological trailblazing has already spurred much-needed innovation in the industry.

Now that it has opened up new fields, fresher entrants might emerge. After all, few remember that Google itself was a late arrival to the search-engine game. And look at it now.