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Gawking at Google

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.--A tour of Google's corporate campus has become an obligatory part of a Silicon Valley visit for reporters, technologists, politicians and celebrities, but somehow, I'd never had the experience until this week.

Yesterday, I spent most of the the day at Google's headquarters here before wrapping up with a stop at YouTube's offices 25 miles north in San Bruno.

Yes, the "Googleplex" seems like a pretty cushy place to work. The architecture isn't too special, but the central courtyard features an extensive vegetable and herb garden on one side, with a volleyball pit and a bronze Tyrannosaurus Rex, "Stan," on the other. Step into one of the buildings, and the amount of freebies provided to Googlers can be mind-boggling--especially for somebody based in an office in which the only no-charge beverage comes from the water fountains.

"Stan" resides on Google's campus. (Rob Pegoraro)

After seeing the free soda, free snacks, free lunch, free dessert, free lap swimming pools, free gym, free laundry and then having one of my guides point to the spot in a parking lot "where the haircut van stops on Thursdays," it hit me that Google HQ might not be not too different from the Michigan company town my dad's parents once lived in. But instead of workers returning a chunk of their paychecks to the shops run by the one employer in town, here all these goods and services come free with the paycheck.

The point of all these freebies is, of course, to keep Googlers focused on the job -- just in case the scrolling lists of current Google search queries on view in building lobbies, or the programming hints taped on bathroom walls, don't do the trick.

There is a not-completely-unfair stereotype of programmers as fat guys with beards, but I struggled to find people matching that description here. The central cafeteria, "Charlie's Cafe," could have been a research university's dining hall -- although few grad students have eaten so well at a cafeteria as Googlers do.

To judge from a few vehicles seen in the parking lots, these folks also like to tinker when away from the office: an Ariel Atom, a tiny, two-seat, open-wheel roadster; an old blue Honda Civic modded to run on electric power and plugged into a charging station; a three-wheel, zebra-striped, all-electric Zap Car. (Not that there weren't plenty of BMWs, too.)

The point of this trip, however, wasn't just to gawk at the scenery but to sit down with Google developers and managers (albeit in the company of various PR minders, as is usually the case with these tours). During some pretty wide-ranging chats, I picked up these tidbits about some of the company's products:

Google Desktop and Toolbar:

* Fewer than half of Desktop users enable "advanced features" -- the term for allowing the app to look for Web content based on the patterns of your queries -- although this number includes most users of Desktop's Sidebar feature. That's more than I would have expected, since you have to opt into this. (If you've done so, what made you do it?)

Android, Google's mobile-phone software:

* Andy Rubin, the company's senior director of mobile platforms, said that Android is still set to ship in the second half of this year, and any screen shots you may have seen don't reflect what it will look like when finished.

* Google plans to run an online marketplace for third-party programs, which will both test them for safety and security and let users rate them. The idea is that you'd install a program directly off this site instead of moving it to your computer and then syncing it to the phone. This marketplace should also carry ringtones and screen backgrounds.

Google Documents:

* After an upcoming software download called Google Gears ships sometime in the second quarter of this year, you should be able to read and edit Google Docs files offline.

* But if you were hoping to start opening files saved in Microsoft's new Office 2007 file formats, keep waiting -- engineering director Sam Schillace said few customers wanted that feature now. He also criticized Microsoft's documentation of these formats, saying "they seem to be designed to be hard to use."

* Schillace noted that one reason why Google Docs can be updated so quickly is that the company can see everything that goes on inside these programs and spot usability problems quickly -- though this data is stripped of any identifying information before anybody at Google sees it. Is that all right with you?

Mobile software:

* Product manager Sumit Agarwal noted that the use of such Web-connected phone programs as Google Maps for Mobile gives the company an interesting window into human interaction, just by seeing when people jump online with their phones: "I can tell you when a carrier in the Netherlands has a promotion for free data. In Japan, I can see train time schedules."

Google Maps, Local Search and Earth:

* Waiting for Google Maps and Google Earth to show a current photo of your neighborhood? Product director John Hanke said the company updates its imagery about every two to three years for most urban areas; only the densest and most rapidly changing locations get updated photos more often.

* He wouldn't say when Google Maps' Street View option would arrive in D.C., but the necessary street-level photos have already been taken. Hope you were dressed well for the occasion!


* Product manager Sakina Arsiwala said YouTube sees about 10 hours of content uploaded a minute. And since Google doesn't have an effective way to have computers "watch" that much video for themselves, the site must continue to rely on the titles and captions that users provide.

* If you use a program or Web site to get a downloadable copy of a YouTube clip, you're probably safe to keep doing so. Product manager Hunter Walk noted that these tools violate YouTube's terms of service, but he didn't sound bent out of shape over them, saying "We spend more time thinking about what most users want to do."

Throughout most of these interviews, I couldn't resist asking one question: When's the last time the Internet went out at Google? After a few people said they couldn't remember any such thing happening, one person finally recalled that a virus took out the company network for a day in 2004.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 15, 2008; 11:40 AM ET
Categories:  The Web  
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