Murad Ahmed writes about the rise of Google and the rebirth of Apple. No-one could have guessed, ten years ago, that two of the most successful commercial ideas of the decade would be the free availability of information and the beauty of objects once thought to be purely functional.
Google set off with an extraordinarily ambitious mission: to organise the world’s information and make it universally useful. Its approach was revolutionary then, but seems the norm now. It was free. It was open. Anyone could use it.
And Google eventually worked out how to make bags of money. It sold advertising alongside search results. Google became a multibillion-dollar company, a verb, a phenomenon.
Apple took a different route. The company had been in the doldrums for years, but in 2001 it launched the iPod. The key to the device was simplicity. It was easy to use and allowed millions to carry around entire record collections. Today public spaces are filled with people plugged into headphones.
The iPod was also beautiful, setting the standard for design and technological innovation. The only device that had a similar impact was Apple’s own iPhone, launched in 2007. Both became the must-have products of the decade.
The next step for Google is not just to link all digital information, but to digitise all non-digital information so that everything ever known will be available online.
Robert Darnton has an article about the legal complications for Google of grabbing other people’s copyright. He sums up the vision and the difficulties here:
The terms of the settlement will have a profound effect on the book industry for the foreseeable future. On the positive side, Google will make it possible for consumers to purchase access to millions of copyrighted books currently in print, and to read them on hand-held devices or computer screens, with payment going to authors and publishers as well as Google. Many millions more—books covered by copyright but out of print, at least seven million in all, including untold millions of “orphans” whose rightsholders have not been identified—will be available through subscriptions paid for by institutions such as universities. The database, along with books in the public domain that Google has already digitized, will constitute a gigantic digital library, and it will grow over time so that someday it could be larger than the Library of Congress (which now contains over 21 million catalogued books). By paying a moderate subscription fee, libraries, colleges, and educational institutions of all kinds could have instant access to a whole world of learning and literature.
But will the price be moderate? The negative arguments stress the danger that monopolies tend to charge monopoly prices. Equally important, they warn that Google’s dominance of access to books will reinforce its power over access to other kinds of information, raising concerns about privacy (Google may be able to aggregate data about your reading, e-mail, consumption, housing, travel, employment, and many other activities). The same dominance also raises questions about both competition (the class-action character of the suit could make it impossible for another entrepreneur to digitize orphan works, because only Google will be protected from litigation by rightsholders) and commitment to the public good. As a commercial enterprise, Google’s first duty is to provide a profit for its shareholders, and the settlement leaves no room for representation of libraries, readers, or the public in general.