Vint Cerf on Google's challenges, aspirations

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist, recently chatted with IDG News Service about a variety of topics related to the Mountain View, California, search giant. Cerf, considered one of the fathers of the Internet for his work as co-designer of TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), talked about Google's current challenges, the mashups phenomenon of creating new applications by blending data and tools from multiple Web sites, the Google Book Search controversy and the company's aspirations in the enterprise space.

As Google broadens its menu of services beyond search to areas such as blogging, Web mail, Wi-Fi access, instant messaging and social networking, does it run the risk of losing its focus?

Absolutely not. What's happening here is the aggregation of a remarkable collection of people all of whom have a very visceral and strong appreciation for what is possible to do with software and information and they are exploring a variety of ways in which to make these computer-driven tools more useful and also more cross functional. The focus isn't simply on search. The focus is on making information discoverable and useful, so all of these things you see happening at Google are side effects of expanding on the original paradigm, which was making search an effective tool. Now we're looking at how to make other information activities more effective and relevant.

Is it a good strategy for Google to be in the enterprise-search market with products such as the Search Appliance and the Google Mini?

Yes, I'm very excited about the packaging up of Google's capabilities in a way that can be delivered to an enterprise. The opportunity there is to deliver this capability to a fairly broad range of enterprises from very small to very large. The ability to help people organize information, especially unstructured information, is a very powerful tool and our ability to package that up and deliver it to an enterprise is going to be very well received. I'm excited about it because it takes what we learned in the general Web space and allows us to apply it to corporate information.

What do you make of the mashups phenomenon?

I can't tell you how excited I am about it. We know we don't have a corner on creativity. There are creative people all around the world, hundreds of millions of them, and they are going to think of things to do with our basic platform that we didn't think of. So the mashup stuff is a wonderful way of allowing people to find new ways of applying the basic infrastructures we're propagating. This will turn out to be a major source of ideas for applying Google-based technology to a variety of applications.

Most of Google's revenue comes from paid search ads. Should the company try to diversify its revenue sources?

It is always a good idea to understand how dependent you are on your revenue streams and whether there could be more diversification. However, we have a very long way to go before we have exhausted that segment of [the overall advertising market] that we have reasonable access to. I'm not suggesting complacency at all, but I'm suggesting we have some ways to grow in our current business model on a global scale before diversification becomes an issue.

How do you see Google faring against large competitors and against startups?

One way to get ahead is to stay ahead and Google is working very hard to make sure it explores as many new ideas as it can. You won't find Google resting on any of its laurels and letting the grass grow. There will be ideas coming from all over the Internet environment and there are lots of competitors out there. Our job is to stay alert to new opportunities and new ideas, not just in the search space, but in the more general space of handling information. We'll continue to hire the best and brightest people we can. We'll give them freedom to explore and interact with each other and we hope we can maintain an atmosphere that is comparable to the kind of atmosphere you see in small startups. If we can stay, as we have been, a company of startups, I think we'll be able to compete quite effectively.

Since early last year, Google has been involved in a steady stream of controversies, the latest one being publishers' lawsuits against Google for its Google Book Search program. How well do you see Google handling these controversies?

Part of my job is to try to make that better. On the Google [Book Search controversy], I don't think we explained as carefully as we should have how this was going to work and how we would protect the interest of the publishers. And the publishers have leapt to a conclusion which is not supported by what we're trying to do. Part of my job is to articulate that more carefully and I hope we can overcome the concerns that have been expressed. In general, Google will face these kinds of issues in the future. We're dealing with an enormous quantity of information. Any time you're dealing with information that is provided by people or is about people you're going to encounter some controversy. We need to learn how to cope with that more effectively.

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