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The here and now

Even as Google's engineers make progress on a set of audacious new projects, the company is still principally concerned with making money from its current operations. In the case of advertising, that's already been done, as Google already generates almost 90 per cent of its revenue from ads. However there are two areas where Google dominates the market in terms of usage, but makes a comparatively small amount of money. The company's task today is to change that, and make its video and mobile operations as profitable as they are popular.



Almost everything Google does is related, in one way or another, to mobile devices. It has invested heavily in the Android operating system, which now powers more smartphones and tablets than any other software in the world. But the obsession with mobile goes deeper than new software and smartphones: It has had a profound impact on Google’s core research. Google is in the middle of a major overhaul to its search algorithms to make them more useful for consumers who view their smartphone as their primary search tool. This has involved solving some serious computer science problems, such as voice recognition (for years, Google had a hard time with accented English) and context awareness (for example, understanding the subject of the question “How tall is he?” based on the preceding question). The ultimate goal is to create a search engine to which users can talk in the same way they would to another person.


Having shaken the video content industry by purchasing and then expanding the most popular video site in the world, Google is still trying to find new ways to make money from YouTube. Google’s array of ads, from pre-roll clips to banners, has been around for some time, but it is increasingly betting that some customers are willing to pay directly for content. YouTube recently announced a significant expansion of its paid channel program, where users pay directly to watch content from certain producers. Google is also working to make YouTube mobile friendly, after disclosing recently that 40 per cent of the site’s traffic now comes from smartphones and tablets.

The next 15 years

For most of its history, Google has been synonymous with one thing – Internet search. Search-related advertising is still its main revenue source. But over the years, its work force has invested heavily in projects that today are mainstream Internet fixtures, such as Gmail and the Android operating system.

Google is now working on the next batch of high-risk, experimental projects. Most of these ventures will not bear commercial fruit for years, if ever. But if they work, the new initiatives will likely define the next stage of Google’s evolution.


Self-driving cars

If Google’s top brass is right, “autonomous” vehicles could become a roadway staple within the next five years. Even as many auto makers work on vehicles that require no human control, Google is perhaps the leading researcher of, and advocate for, the technology. Its self-driving car research sprang from the technology it used to map city streets for its Street View projects. Today, Google’s experimental robot cars have logged hundreds of thousands of kilometres, and the company’s lobbying has helped persuade several American states to pass laws legalizing driverless cars. Although Google says it has no plans to monetize the technology, driverless cars could prove massively profitable – both as a feature to be sold, and as a generator of data about how people get around.
Frank Franklin II/AP

Google Glass

Perhaps the most consumer-ready of its futuristic projects, Google Glass is also one of its most polarizing products. The headband-mounted computer first made waves two years ago, as an experimental project that even Google couldn’t quite explain. As part of its research, Google asked prospective users to describe how they would use a wearable computer. Google Glass’s sales pitch now revolves around the idea of invisibility. While smartphone users have to put their device between themselves and the action (to take a picture or record video), Google Glass allows the user to be immersed in the moment, or so Google engineers argue. There is no shortage of critics who worry about a future in which Glass is as ubiquitous as smartphones, and a waiting camera hovers in front of everyone’s eyes.

Project Loon

Google’s business model depends on users having easy access to fast Internet connections. Most of the world, for reasons of poverty, infrastructure or remoteness, doesn’t meet this criteria. For years, Google has tried to remedy this with small, experimental projects to provide smaller communities with fast Internet. Its fibre-optic program, for example, is perhaps the fastest commercially available Internet in the United States (although only in a handful of towns). But for more far-flung locations, Google this year began experimenting with a different technology – WiFi balloons. The balloons are designed to float into the stratosphere and beam Internet signals to places where access is hard to come by. It is testing the technology – code named Project Loon – in parts of New Zealand, with plans to expand to other remote locations.


Little is known about Google’s newest and most audacious venture yet – except that it seeks to research something akin to eternal youth. Financed entirely by Google, the new company, called Calico, is described as a research house specializing in the cellular causes and effects of aging. Its long-term goal is to find out why and how the human body breaks down over time and to discover ways to reverse that process. Google’s executives have remained tight-lipped about the details of Calico, and few in the biotechnology industry expect any quick solutions from it. Still, the project marks Google’s biggest swing – an attempt to solve a problem that transcends the technology industry, or any industry.