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Gwyneth, the Grateful Dead and Google

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos says the hottest company in Silicon Valley is behaving as if the dot-com bubble never burst. Maybe there's a good reason for that.

Who would have thought that Gwyneth Paltrow had a thing for tech support jockeys?

The Academy Award-winning actress has been one in a succession of celebrity visitors in the past several months to the Mountain View, Calif., headquarters of Google. She showed up with the members of British music sensation Coldplay, rode around on a Segway and peered into a couple of cubicles, no doubt to catch the real-life drama of someone writing an action-item memo or taking a sales call.

Other visitors include former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young and former Vice President Al Gore. Even people with day jobs---such as Thomas Friedman, international affairs columnist for The New York Times--have dropped by for visit, a Google representative confirmed.

It is an interesting sign. Over the past two years, several pundits have tried to declare the end of the tech era. New industries won't be created around gizmos, IBM CEO Sam Palmisano said earlier this year. The Harvard Business Review published a piece that questioned whether technology could be a strategic differentiator. Long-dead dot-com companies are still held up to ridicule, often by the people who once invested in them.

Google, though, is living like the meltdown never happened. Revenue could hit a billion dollars this year, according to some estimates, and the company has quickly established itself as a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Speculation about an IPO--so 1999--generates excitement among investors. The company's founders often talk about how they want to change the world.

The company even embraces the workplace frivolity of Internet mania without a whit of shame. It provides free food--breakfast, lunch and dinner--to its employees. Charlie Ayers, a former chef for the Grateful Dead, is the executive chef.

To get around, several employees ride Segway scooters or Green Machines, a 21st century version of the Big Wheel. It's designed for 11-year-olds.

Pilates exercise balls and bowls of M&M's are scattered about. The lobby entrance is decorated with a few hundred lava lamps.

"This is like day care," one employee spouse who took the tour said.

Google, though, is living like the meltdown never happened.
As for health benefits, on-site dentistry and on-site physicians are available. Employees on parental leave get 75 percent of their salary and, for the first two weeks after the baby is born, $50 a day to spend at Waiters on Wheels.

Even the tradition of giving kooky names to conference rooms and buildings survives.

Building 2 is named "e," after the base of natural logarithm (numerically, that's 2.71828).

Building 3 goes by the name of "pi" (3.14).

Building 4, meanwhile, got labeled "phi", otherwise known as the golden mean. In reality, phi is 1.61803, so it is out of synch with its status as Building 4 on the campus, but one of the founders really likes the principles behind the number.

"We don't have a formal corporate culture," a company representative stated. "We think it can get in the way of creativity."

Google's success, in part, underscores two fundamental realities of the tech industry. One, that the public still loves it; and two, that the formula for a hit product remains fairly unpredictable, because demand is largely based on desire, not necessity. People don't need new computers, a digital video camera or online chat software to survive. They need food, clothes and a new cat carrier every once in a while. Ultimately, most technology products--especially upgrades--are luxuries.

A soaring beginning doesn't guarantee success. Microsoft, Yahoo and others will try to steal away portions of the search business.
Luxury, however, can have an incredible pull. Venice, Italy, became a world power through the spice trade. DeBeers built a vast fortune on promoting diamonds. Frank Epperson, meanwhile, achieved immortality by inventing the Fudgsicle.

It is hard to pinpoint the factors that underlie Google's success, but you can certainly say this: The company isn't transforming the search market by conducting itself like a pulp and paper manufacturer. Instead, it has played off the innate curiosity behind search and the general public's dislike of banner ads. Since then, its search engine has become a corporate standard.

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Put another way, it developed a "killer app" at a time when those kinds of things are supposed to be dead. The optimism is a nice contrast to the gloomy hand-wringing coming out of other companies due to cost controls and a lack of demand.

A soaring beginning doesn't guarantee success. Netscape burned bright and died young. More than one person who has had business dealings with Google has used the word "arrogant" to describe the company. Microsoft, Yahoo and others will try to steal away portions of the search business.

Still, Google has shown that it can capture the public imagination, and that could carry it a long way. And if not, the resale price on Green Machines is fairly high.