This afternoon I attended a lecture/book reading/book signing by John Battelle, co-founder of Wired magazine, author of "The Search", and much other stuff. The event was on Microsoft campus as part of Research's lecture series.
I got there fairly early and the room was strangely empty for quite a while, then five minutes before show time, and in typical Microsoft fashion, the meeting room was packed and ended up standing room only.
John spoke for about half an hour, relating anecdotes including hist first visit to Microsoft in 1994 with the other founders of Wired. They met with BillG, amongst others and talked about how he was awestruck. The meeting became the first story in their new HotWired venture.
Maybe he was just playing to the crowd (I don't think so), but he seemed genuinely warm to Microsoft. He talked about how he felt disenchanted with the tech industry after 2001 and the dot-com bubble collapse, and believed that there were no new stories. "New York", as he put it, were in the "I told you so" game. But then he discovered search and how the search box could capture a culture's history.
He asked the room how many people had looked at the Google Zeitgeist and a good majority of hands were raised. He quipped that that was more people than had raised their hands when he visited Google - "mind you, most of them were hired yesterday..."
The Zeitgeist interested him and he wondered what Google might be doing - that led to his ongoing fascination with search, and to the book. Despite what people may think, only half the book is devoted to Google. He needed a lead role for the book which Google filled - Microsoft just wasn't in the space at that time. He jokingly said that his publisher wanted it to be called "The Google, all about google, google, google..."
In the Q&A session, it started to become apparent that he believes Google to be a naive corporation and is expecting it to go through growing pains, have it's big PR problems, etc... When he asked Sergey Brin about how the patriot act affected Google, Sergey hadn't read it and didn't realise the problems that it could cause the company.
I asked John how much he thought Google is moving from an "access to information via search" company to a collector of information (library scanning, etc...) and how that meshes with the Google WiFi play.
He gave a long and thoughtful answer about the potential for collecting individual information to target search better and that if done wrong that could be a "bad thing" - effectively steering peoples' search experience by knowing what other activity they perform online. Of course, he wasn't suggesting that Google would do such a thing, but as a source from inside the company told him: "We're one bad PR event away from being viewed as Big Brother". As a company gets bigger and bigger, control over actions can be difficult, and the Google needs to recognize that.
Another observation in response to a question was that Google is expanding in all directions at once, with no obvious guiding strategy. Wall Street might not necessarily like that, but it might be in response to the "one trick pony" press aimed at Google after the IPO. His gut tells him that there is more strategy behind all those 20% projects than Google is letting on...
A question was raised about Google's record of academic pushing as compared to other companies. Considering that Google was born out of academia it seems very bad that Google doesn't publish anything. Apparently this question was asked of Sergey at Web 2.0 last week. His response was that "they're aware of the problem..."
Overall, a great talk. I'd been meaning to get a copy of the book for a while, so I picked one up at the talk and had John sign it.
Now I just need to read it...