These days, it may seem like Google's strength and success were inevitable – thanks to Larry Page and Sergey Brin cracking the search code – but the reality is very different. Google was born into a state of war in the early 2000s, subject to the whims of Microsoft, a tech whose Internet Explorer browser was on 90 percent of all computers at the time and essentially most people's access to Google's search engine check the. And while Google has won that battle, it has faced new ones ever since.
In the second episode of Land of the Giants: The Google Empire – our new seven-part podcast on the company's emergence into a global colossus – we explore how Google, which is currently being sued by the Justice Department and several public attorneys general on antitrust issues, has struggled to survive throughout its history .
Google only reached its current heights by adopting a survival mindset – working its way first to lasting relevance and eventually to dominance in areas such as search and mobile operating systems. The company's early fear of failure still appears in many of its current decisions, such as when it pays competitors (like Apple) to make it the default search engine of their operating system, or when it populates its search results with its own products.
The Google survival story begins at a time when Internet Explorer prevailed and Microsoft could have easily replaced Google as the browser's default search option. At the time, you were not typing searches in the address bar of your browser. To search with Google, type www.google.com in the address bar or press the browser's search button (which takes you to Google's webpage). Microsoft could, if desired, build its own search engine and make that the default, or it could enable search in the address bar with something other than Google. If Microsoft had done such a thing, it probably would have been the end of Google. So Google knew it needed a solution.
That solution was the Google Toolbar, a browser extension that added a Google search bar directly below the browser's address bar. A few years after Google released it, hundreds of millions of people used Toolbar, largely thanks to Google signing distribution agreements with companies such as Adobe to include it in their installation packages, as well as its ease of use. For a moment, Google felt it had solved its problem.
But when Google began developing other web-based programs that would become core products, such as Gmail, Docs, and Calendar, the idea of allowing another company – especially a competitor like Microsoft – to take control. get over people's web experience, Google uncomfortable. Google saw Microsoft develop its own search engine, first called Live Search and then Bing, and decided it couldn't rely solely on its Toolbar to encourage people to use Google Search instead of competitors. The company needed its own browser. That's why it made Chrome.
Google Chrome took off because it was fast, simple, and easy to use, and also because Google used similar Toolbar distribution deals to spread it to the masses. But while Chrome was a huge success – it is now the dominant desktop browser in the world – it only offered temporary relief. Because, just as Chrome took hold on the desktop, the mobile revolution took off, once again exposing Google to new territory.
Google didn't want any other company – be it Microsoft or Apple – to control how people access the Internet and its products from their phones and other handhelds. It also knew it would benefit from some sort of standardization of the mobile web. And that became the basis for Android, the mobile operating system it acquired in 2005 and developed within its company. Today, Android supports nearly 85 percent of the world's phones, which is Google the path to the web for most people, not just a website where you can find stuff.
Without Android and Chrome, Google would be “downgraded to probably irrelevant,” said Brian Rakowski, a Google VP for product management who works on Chrome as well as Google's mobile efforts. "Had we not been able to do that, we probably would have been wiped out or become a very, very small, probably irrelevant company."
All these battles brought Google, once a scrappy startup that tried not to be crushed by Microsoft, to where it is today – at the top of the tech world, but also faced with accusations that it has grown too big and illegally stifled competition.
For more stories of Google's incredible rise, covering everything from the cell phone wars to the company's internal tensions to the current antitrust battles, Subscribe now to Land of the Giants: The Google EmpireAnd please tell us what you think: we're on Twitter with @kantrowitz and .