New book focuses on Google's internal struggles

Author Steve Levy's book, which goes on sale April 12, addresses the company's struggles in China and with social networking.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read
Steve Levy's "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives."
Steve Levy's "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives." Simon and Schuster

Google's star has continued to rise over the last several years. But a new book reveals it wasn't all fun and games.

In his upcoming book, "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives," author Steven Levy takes an in-depth look into how Google started as the brainchild of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and became one of the most important companies in the world.

But it's the book's look into missteps in China and with social networking that may be the most eye-opening of Levy's apparent discoveries.

According to The New York Times, which received an advance copy of the book, Levy found that Google has endured a long and troubling relationship with China that dates back to 2004. That year, Levy writes, according to the Times, Page and Brin visited China. Prior to their arrival, their staff tried to teach them how they should act in the country. Even with that tutorial, and in subsequent interactions with the Chinese government, the company was never able to fit in with the country's customs--an issue that plagued its relationship with China for years, Levy says.

Google was also suspect of the Chinese government. Levy reportedly writes that Google did not provide its engineers in China with access to the code for its many services--the company's typical practice elsewhere around the world--out of fear that the Chinese government would gain access to it.

Google's issues with China hit a tipping point early last year when the company revealed it was the target of attacks that originated in that country. The company said it discovered a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack" on its corporate infrastructure in December 2009 that resulted in the theft of some of its intellectual property. It was one of many companies, according to Google, that was targeted. The Chinese Government has denied any involvement in the attack.

Even so, the issue was enough for Google to threaten to remove its search service from China. It finally followed through with that threat months later. Those who try to access Google's China search are now redirected to its uncensored Hong Kong search page.

From left to the right: Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergey Brin.
From left to the right: Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergey Brin. Google

But China hasn't been the only troubling issue at Google as of late.

According to the Times, Levy discusses an internal memo sent around Google last year that the company calls "Urs-Quake," named after its author, Urs Hölzle, a Google fellow and first vice president of engineering. He reportedly wrote in that memo that Google was trailing Facebook in social networking and the time had come to find people to improve its stance in that market. Hölzle believed, according to Levy, that the search giant had no other choice.

Though the Times didn't say when Hölzle allegedly wrote the memo, it's worth noting that Google launched a social-networking service last year, called Google Buzz. But since its initial moment in the spotlight, the offering, which is built into the company's Gmail service, has been overshadowed by Facebook and that company's more than 600 million active users.

"They're super-nervous about Facebook," Levy said of Google in an interview published yesterday with the Times.

Levy also reportedly took aim at outgoing Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

According to the Times, Levy wrote that Schmidt once requested his search team remove mention of a political contribution he had made. The request was flatly denied. A Google spokeswoman told CNET today that Schmidt never requested a removal of the contribution.

Schmidt, who has been at Google since 2001, is officially handing over the reins to Larry Page on Monday. He will stay on at Google as executive chairman.

Levy's book will go on sale April 12.

Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS. CNET News is published by CBS Interactive, a unit of CBS.

Updated at 3:53 p.m. PT to include Google comment on Levy's apparent claim that Schmidt requested the removal of a mention of a political contribution he made.