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 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2011: Technology

This proved true. From Page’s PageRank (pun intended) algorithm that made links the center of search to Google’s expropriation of rival GoTo’s auction business model for keyword search, Levy observes, everything was engineered around exponential expectations.

To succeed, Google would ultimately have to manage billions of queries and petabytes of data. To sustain success and growth, Google would inherently need to think not just big but huge. The firm would need to listen for and exploit network effects wherever it could find or create them. As Levy documents with relish, from Android mobile phones to Gmail to YouTube videos, Google literally and figuratively enjoyed an embarrassment of digitized riches.

What a fantastic innovation environment. Network effects meant that the innovation paradigm could shift away from linear research and development to more iterative experimentation and scale. Business experimentation soon converged and coevolved with technical and computational experimentation. Google’s ecosystem became an economy. So the company hired innovative Berkeley professor Hal Varian as its chief economist; Varian has proved adept at designing market mechanisms for monetization and using Google searches as forecasting tools for the global economy. (See “To Hal Varian, the Price Is Always Right,” by Michael Schrage, s+b, First Quarter, 2000.)

Levy holistically captures Google as a global business; a data-driven, experimentation-oriented innovation culture; a cutting-edge technologist; a pop culture icon; and the living extension of its founders’ vision. He strikes these balances remarkably well, although he is, perhaps, a little too generous to a company that clearly offered terrific access.

That said, Levy doesn’t flinch in describing Google’s difficult moments, such as the souring of relations with Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs, who felt betrayed by the top management at Google when that company introduced the Android phone. Indeed, Levy’s earlier books on Apple — The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (Simon & Schuster, 2006) and Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything (Viking, 1994) — give him great insight into and context for writing about idiosyncratic technical geniuses worth billions of dollars.

Levy also points to the struggle of retaining exceptionally talented people who invariably chafe at the technical and business conflicts that emerge in every fast-growing global enterprise. As dominant and influential as Google may be now (wasn’t that true of Microsoft barely a decade ago?), Schumpeterian reality suggests that today’s Googlers may be the firm’s most serious rivals tomorrow. To its credit, Google recognizes this. It knows that some of its best people may listen to the technology in a different way — and choose to do their translating elsewhere.

What Is “Watson”?

That “listen different” sensibility reverberates throughout Final Jeopardy. This book is more an hors d’oeuvre than a gourmet banquet. But it serves a tasty slice of the larger themes addressed by What Technology Wants and In the Plex. Sometimes the technology simply says, “What the heck.” Sometimes the seemingly trivial provokes serendipitous and significant leaps of innovation.

The sheer quixotic nature of the quest is silly but irresistible. Could IBM build a machine that could do for Jeopardy what Deep Blue did for chess? Could Ken Jennings — the ubergeek who captured the hearts, minds, and Nielsen ratings of America’s longest-lived TV game show as its most dominant champion — be turned into a 21st-century Gary Kasparov, the world’s top chess player who was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997? Could creating a Jeopardy machine generate publicity for IBM even as it pushed the boundaries of real-time artificial intelligence research? As a successful Jeopardy contestant would answer, “What is yes, Alex?”

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