Google projects galore gaining traction

There are lots of initiatives at the search giant

With a skyrocketing stock price, fanboy hysteria and — most importantly — really useful products, Google is the hot company of tech for the new millennium.

It's so active that it's hard to keep track of everything it does. And, just when you get a good handle on its litany of web applications, promising lab innovations and unheralded research projects, it seems to invent something new. Who would have thought a search site company would get involved in laying a fibre-optic undersea cable between the US and Japan?

Here's an update on some of Google's most interesting projects.

1. Android

Although the "gPhone" never materialised, Google has been planning something better: an operating system for phones called Android. It's partly a direct competitor to Windows Mobile and partly an experiment in open-source development. Recently, the company held a contest for third-party developers to create innovative apps for Android. 1,700 programmers took up the challenge.

Examples from the contest include wayfinding apps that tap into the handheld's Global Positioning System chip. One application lets users find a taxi based on where they are. Some of these apps sounds a bit theoretical at this point — the platform and phones will ship in the second half of 2008 — but Google did post a PDF that shows the top 50 winners in the first round of the challenge, along with screenshots.

Android product manager Erick Tseng says it's a massive shift in thinking from the phone dictating what you can do to the device being open to any kind of content, service, provider and media.

Not everything has gone smoothly for Android, however. Charles Covin, a Forrester Research analyst, says "I think the Android platform is a long-term play, and its short-term hiccups are no surprise. Google is intent on reaching consumers wherever they can, and it's clear that, while internet use on mobile phones is still limited, it is the next venue where Google can expect to interact with its customers."

2. Facial recognition search

Image search is a burgeoning market that is woefully untapped. Today, when you type "Paris Hilton" at Google.com, you'll find images that other users have tagged. Yet tagging is a tedious process. At Flickr.com, for example, many images are left untagged, making it impossible to find them by searching. The more images stored without tags, the harder it is to find them.

At Google, new facial recognition technology will make it easier to find untagged images. Unlike the technology used for biometrics — where you can pass through a security checkpoint when a video camera confirms your identity — this image search is purely for finding the information you want.

"What Google did for text, we want to do for vision," says Shumeet Baluja, a Google research scientist.

Imagine this scenario: Five years from now, when all of your digital photos are stored online, you decide you want to search for pictures of your grandmother. With Google facial recognition technology, you might start with a source scan that measures the distance between the eyes, arrangement of nose, ears, eyes and other data. In seconds, you find every image you ever uploaded — and any image stored anywhere online.

3. Language translation

Translation has been around for years, especially as part of search engines such as Alta Vista. Google has made progress with the vast number of languages it has made available for translation, including Russian, Arabic and the recent addition of Hindi. Another innovation is in researching the rules applied to machine translation, based on cultural phenomena of languages, which requires a great deal of computer processing.

"The more rules used, the better the quality of the translation," says Franz Och, a Google machine translation research scientist. "If you want to perform an English-to-Hindi translation, for example — which has a small subset of the language pairs [matching words] of French or Spanish — the smaller the language, the more important machine translation becomes. Finnish is a challenging language because of the morphology. One word could have all kinds of information inherent to it. Other language translations are more complicated because there are so many differences between the languages. Nice languages with historic roots and similarities are easier, like French to English."

4. Energy initiatives

Bill Weihl is the energy czar at Google charged with making the company a leading example of energy efficiency. Most buildings at Google's headquarters have a solar array that provides 30% of peak power usage at the campus. The company also lets employees use hybrid cars for occasional short-term use — they are located in a garage that is itself powered by a solar array.

"In the last year, we have been working with companies in the industry in and outside of technology to drive energy efficiency in PCs and servers," Weihl says. "We started an initiative with Intel and HP and others called the Climate Savers Initiative. Also Starbucks — who provides a lot of the fuel that drives the tech industry. It is not a technology issue — it is a demand issue."

Weihl says "it costs more to get a PC or server that is energy-efficient; components have not been efficient.

"It is a cost that pays back within a year or two. For years, we talked about price performance and features. We really need to educate the industry and consumers that they should think about energy when they buy them."

5. Universal search

Anytime you search on Google.com, you are performing a "universal search", where the results are not just text links but a mix of websites, images, videos, blog entries and even audio. The underlying technology is how Google determines which results it presents and how it presents them. With universal search, it continues to tweak algorithms and experiment with the search results. The goal, says Bailey, is to present balanced results based on the search term and move away from the heavy emphasis on only textual web links that existed prior to the switch to universal search in May 2007.

"If you search for Martin Luther King, you might be thinking text, but we present relevant video results," says David Bailey, a Google senior software engineer for universal search. "We can look at the results and compare and contrast. Someone might be speculatively searching, but we put the 'non-web' results at the top of the page. There might be blog posts or video podcasts. It is a good diversity play when we search everything speculatively. We know about the video, we have the thumbnails, we know the star rating, so we should present those results."

Rumored projects

Along with the confirmed projects already mentioned, there are also plenty of rumours about fantastic new programmes at the Mountain View, California-based technology juggernaut. We asked Google to comment on some of the more prominent rumors and to confirm or deny its involvement.

1. Google is building datacentres all over the world

Official response from Google:

"Fast, innovative products are crucial for our users and require significant computing power. As a result, Google invests heavily in technical facilities and has dozens of facilities around the world with many computers. However, for competitive reasons, we don't disclose exact numbers or locations of facilities or computers."

2. It's planning to buy Expedia from Microsoft!

Official response from Google:

No comment.

3. Dell is currently manufacturing the Google phone!

Official response from Google:

No comment.

4. The company's working with the CIA!

Official response from Google:

"Most of Google's products are available for free to any person with access to the internet. We also provide enterprise solutions on a commercial basis to corporations, non-profit organisations, and governments in many, many nations."

5. Google is making an operating system for the Web

Official response from Google:

No comment.

6. It's buying Skype from eBay

Official response from Google:

No comment.

7. Google is buying up wireless spectrum for a second iteration of wi-fi called wi-fi 2.0!

Official response from Google:

"This reflects a misunderstanding of this issue. We — along with Microsoft, Dell, Philips and other technology companies — are advocating that the vacant 'white spaces' in the TV spectrum band be opened up for unlicensed use for internet access. 'Unlicensed' means that spectrum would not be auctioned off and would be available to anyone who wants to use it. Unlicensed spectrum is currently used by garage door openers and wi-fi stations, among others. So it is inaccurate to say that Google would 'buy' spectrum — we think that it shouldn't even be auctioned."

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