Monday, February 6, 2012

Review: In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a tech blogger and journalist I've been following Google pretty closely since 2006, and I was using their products before that. But for the most part I've focused on the parts of Google that everyone sees: the finished products. Steven Levy took a peek behind the scenes and paints an intriguing picture of a company that's combined openness, secrecy, and innovation to create an empire out of products that work extraordinarily well... but which scare the pants off of some people who stop to think about just how much information Google has about all of its users.

I'm a big fan of Levy's skills at turning highly technical topics into engaging narratives by focusing on the people behind the products. But in Google's case, that's an awful lot of people. At last count the company had around 20,000 employees, and while Levy didn't interview them all, unlike some of Levy's earlier books, In the Plex feels more like a series of distinct articles than a comprehensive story.

But most of those articles are worth reading and I enjoyed getting a feel for the people behind the search engine, email system, book scanning product, and high profile decisions to enter... and then exit China, among other things.

There's no way to avoid the fact that this book feels like a work in progress. It was published in April, 2011 -- when Google's social tools included Buzz, Orkut, and Latitude, but months before Google Plus or Search Plus Your World arrived on the scene.

But In The Plex paints a picture of how the insiders at Google think and provides a framework for understanding some of the things that have happened since the book's publication -- and a picture of what happens when a startup out to change the world becomes the established player that already did.

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