January 2007


Search It’s only few companies that achieve $5 billion in revenue in the first 5 years of its operations. One such company is Google. John Battle in his book “The  Search” has used Google as a background and has narrated a beautiful account of the most important facets of the internet industry. He gives the reasoning that search as a problem is only 5% solved and says that innovations in search technologies is going to make web experience 95% more richer that what exists today. He views a world where search would enable to make a database of intentions and the web would easily facilitate Recovery of information and Discovery of Information to the user.
The book first describes the main components of a search engine which are, Crawler, indexer and run time indexer. Crawler as the name suggests crawls the web , brings various links and their context and stores them in a database. The indexer then creates an inverted pyramid where a set of key words map to certain URLs. These associations are then dropped in to a runtime index server from which the user requests are served. Much of the developments have happened in the indexing space from various search players and Google has a great advantage with its page rank algorithm which indexed various URLs.

The first search engine which was used by academicians and geeks was Archie, named so as it was primarily used for searching archived documents, papers etc. Then came Veronica which was similar to Archie but it was based on gopher protocol while Archie was based on ftp. A few others like Wanderer, Web crawler came in to existence but the use was more or less concentrated among the geek / academic community. The first widely used consumer search engine was altavista.com which was built by Louis Manier. This came as a part of development arm in DEC firm. However DEC being a big company was plagued by Innovator’s dilemma and did not realize the potential of altavista.com. Acquisition by COMPAQ sounded the death knell of any future developments of AltaVista. Meanwhile there were other search engines which started making noise as well as dollars. Lycos from CMU grads, Excite from Stanford grads, Yahoo again from Stanford grads became very successful search engines. Excite became very popular but made the mistake of selling the venture to @Home a cable company, instead of Yahoo. @Home was later acquired by Telecom Company and subsequently Excite did not receive a boost in the development.

Amidst all these search engines which were slowly morphing in to portals ( as it was widely believed that search as a destination portal had no revenue model by itself and portal with the help of banner advertising was the way to go ), Google came in to picture. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, 2 Stanford graduates as a part of their research found the search problem interesting. Considering the amount of search spam that was appearing on various portals, they felt that the citations and notations approach among the academic papers could be applied to the search problem. They started backrub , a search engine which would use page rank algo to crawl, index and respond to user queries. Backrub was a massive hit, first among the Stanford campus, then amongst the web user community. Once Backrub started receiving 25 million queries per day, it was decided that the time had come to make it a commercial venture. Google Inc was floated and the founders were fully dedicated to development of search engine. However with no business model in sight, google was blowing always of thousands of dollars every month in terms of the operational costs.

Bill gross is credited to be the father of the business model which was adopted by Google. Bill gross, a serial entrepreneur realized that there was a massive difference between good traffic and bad traffic, where good traffic meant those customers who would visit the sites and make purchases. He realized that suppliers would pay for the good traffic much more than the banner ads as the good traffic conversion rate would be much better than simply web traffic. Hence he created an intentional traffic engine where the advertiser would pay Bill gross only if the user clicks on the link, i.e. performance based ad spent from the advertiser’s point of view. Bill gross also made an innovative pricing – 1 cent per click. These two master moves led to the creation of Goto.com which was the first search destination site which had a good business model. The fact that it was a good business model came to be known only later when it started working. At its start though, all the industry folks scoffed at the idea of the pay per click. Goto.com became very successful and started to venture in to syndication business where it would provide search services on other sites for a fee split. The deal with AOL was a big blunder from Goto.com point of view and in the hindsight because the revenues from AOL tie up far exceeded that of goto.com site and hence the management decided to concentrate on the syndicate business.

Google at the same time was bleeding as there was no business model for the company. With the dot com bust, there was no scope for relying on banner ads as there proved to be useless for zillions of sites. Hence Google was in a way forced to look at goto.com model and hence adopted Ad words based model , a model similar to Bill gross model but where in there was no auction element and where the ads were more based on the relevance of site too rather than just the ad words. However Google realized the importance of auction elements and hence introduced ad words with auction based pay per click model. Google also entered syndicate business by released ad sense program which now provides 15 % of the total revenues.

In this book, Battle also explains the search economy which is characterized by Search engine optimization folks, Affiliate marketers, Click fraudsters etc. Google unconventional IPO is also very well narrated in this book. The most interesting part of the book lies at the end where several future scenarios are hypothesized by Battle. Some of them are Semantic web, Time archive of Internet information, Click stream analysis to provide better search results, Rise of Domain specific search engines, possibility of local and personal search engines etc.

I finished this book in one sitting. Actually once I started reading it; it was hard to put down because it was a wonderful narrative of the search space.

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Justforfun

Just for Fun is an autobiography of Linus torvalds, the creator of Linux, a successful operating system. The reason for the popularity of the OS has more to do with the way in which it was created, OPEN SOURCE.A new term was coined, thanks to Linux and subsequently influenced the IT software industry like never before. This book is written in a remarkably witty manner at the same time explaining the business philosophy behind open source.

Linus torvalds was born in Finland where at a very young age gets introduced to computers when his grandfather, a professor in statistics,asks young linus to type in a lot of BASIC programs which he reads out loudly. Thus linus favorite activity at a very young age was writing BASIC programs, though he didn’t have a clue about their meaning.
Through out his school years, he is looked upon as a nerd(this was when being a nerd was not cool).He was the guy who was good at math,physics but not with girls or sports. He vainly attempts to be a part of finnish army but fails. VIC 20, the first device which Linus gets exposed to , fascinates him a lot. He starts experimenting with VIC 20 and them moves on to buy Sinclair QL.After playing around with it for sometime,he gets sick of it as the OS is a read only OS and there is no memory protection. In the process he starts reading a book titled – OS-Design and Implementation by Andrew S Tanenbaum.This book changes his life for ever. He starts playing around with Minix, the OS developed by Andrew S Tanenbaum.Linus starts off with a terminal emulation program ,looking at some of the ways in which UNIX system calls were designed and coded.

A little diversion here : UNIX ,by the way is a robust O/S but there was no single standard O/S . Unix is a set of system calls and functionality is built upon using the system calls. Since there was no standard, there was no single UNIX version which became widely popular. Unix was first used to write games  because in games the performance matters a lot. A single sec delay is permissible in word processing application but not in a game

Ok,,back to Linus story . Linus wanted to improve Minix and wanted to understand to build a POSIX standard so that it would be used widely. It look him months to write "OPEN" system calls. He also incorporated Bourne shell in to Linus so that it would tell him the list of pending system calls that were to be implemented.  The life of Linus during this phase was characterized by code,sleep, eat, code, sleep, eat..He had absolutely no contact with the outside world. A little trivia here is that Linus actually wanted his OS tobe called Freakx but the guy at the university who was in charge of the server space felt that the root directory under which the code was residing linux was better than a vague name like freakx.
In Sept1991, Linus posted his version of Linux and then collected feedback from a few tech enthusiasts.

In spite of so much development, Linus was using Minix for a lot of functions. But one day, by mistake he overwrote his Minix partition and then he had to take a crucial decision. Reinstall Minix OR Incorporate all the functionality in to Linux. He decided with the latter and then he started coding all the functionality with the help of hacker community in to Linux. Meanwhile in his personal life , he meets Tove, a six time karate champion in finland and his student , marries her. BTW , it was she who asks out Linus for a date..whatelse can you expect out of a geek J

Slowly the linux momentum picks up ,IBM, Informix,Oracle and other bigwigs start supporting Linux. As per GPL license,there is every right to sell the Linux software to people. and thus vendors start selling Linux. Red Hat being one of them. Red Hat’s IPO becomes a roaring success and Linus who is given options by the company becomes a multi millionaire , even though all he cares about is Linux technology , his kids and his wife.

The book ends with Linus take on life where he says that there are 3 basic motivations for people. Survival , then Socializing, culminating in entertainment. Technology till date has always proceeded in the same way as the above motivations as people influence tech development and not the other way round. He foresees that ideally by the next decade, nobody would even want to hear about OS.All they want is a device to browse internet, play games, write papers, e-date, etc..

The best part of the book is a chapter on programming where he says what motivates him to program day in day out. He says programmer is akin to God in the confines of the computer. He knows computer will do whatever he wants it to do, But the beauty is figuring out how to tell it to perform tasks. A programmer thus derives immense satisfaction by coming up with creative ways to make computers perform tasks and thus provide a means to fulfill the motivations of socializing and entertainment to the people at large.

Just for Fun – its really worth reading, just for fun . If not anything, it will tell you that if one starts working on something he loves and something he has fun doing it,  everything else will follow….fame,success,money,etc..

Are you doing whatever you are doing ,for fun ? Are you getting enough fun doing those things ?