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Why Google hired Vint Cerf

Internet pioneer has big ideas for Google Earth and mobile phones. He's also got his eyes on outer space.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
What will Internet visionary Vint Cerf do for Google?

Whether he meant to or not, Cerf hinted at one area he was interested in six weeks before he joined the search giant, and it deals with a wireless device near you.

In a broad-ranging interview with CNET News.com on July 28, Cerf--the man who co-developed the basic communications protocol of the Internet--said databases filled with geographically indexed material will soon help people easily retrieve lists of local hospitals, ATMs or cafes on mobile devices. Advertisements could also be part of the mix.

Vint Cerf
Vint Cerf

"In the case of Google Earth, for example, if you find yourself at a particular location and you ask where the nearest Chinese restaurant is, they can all be popped up, with little logos with the appropriate symbols on them, and you could mouse over to that and click on it and menus might pop up," Cerf told News.com this summer.

In one of the tech industry's most prestigious hires in recent years, Google announced Thursday that Cerf, 62, would help the company develop new architectures, systems and standards for a next generation of applications that would likely run across the Internet. Cerf, who was the vice president of technology strategy at MCI and a visiting scientist with NASA, will start his new job as Google's chief Internet evangelist on Oct. 3.

Cerf's comments in the July interview seem to indicate he was already thinking about Google's future, as well as projects considerably more ambitious than checking out the General Tsao chicken at a local Chinese joint. To start, his expertise in communication protocols could help Google build a vast network that binds location-specific data with wireless communications.

Location, location, location
"If it's in an emergency, suppose there's been a release of toxic material and the wind is blowing. What is in the way of that wind plume--what housing, how many people?" Cerf mused. "This ability to turn geographically indexed data into useful, possibly life-saving, and potentially (money-making) data is extremely exciting."

The search giant is already on its way to doing that with Google Earth, a three-dimensional mapping service, still in its testing phase, that lets people find services like restaurants and ATMs by ZIP code. But Google has yet to make the service as robust as Cerf described. And it's limited to PCs.

So how would Google make money off this sort of thing? National banks could pay to highlight their neighborhood ATMs. Shopping outlets could offer coupons to diners in a local area.

"Say I'm going to Paris and I may want a list of museums within five miles of this hotel. Or where's the nearest hospital? Where's the nearest ATM machine while I'm in the car? These questions have to do with my own mobility. Others have to do with economics and demographics, like what can I learn about my population?" said Cerf.

"There are lots of people who are beginning to accumulate data that binds the geographic location to the data that you're interested in,

such as surveys from Gallup or the Census. These kinds of things can be powerful and monetized," he added.

Google has not announced any plans in the mobile market beyond making its basic services available on wireless devices. But recent moves indicate that execs there may have something big in mind, and Cerf, with his communications protocol background, could play a big role.

The Mountain View, Calif., company has been investing heavily in a communications infrastructure, buying up dark fiber, or fiber-optic cable that's already been laid but is not yet in use. In July, it also invested in Current Communications, a company that provides technology for delivering broadband Net access over power lines.

Google has also quietly partnered with the small San Francisco company Feeva in an effort to test the delivery of advertising over Wi-Fi networks. Google this year also acquired Android, a stealth start-up that was rumored to be working on an operating system for mobile devices. Android's co-founders have expertise in developing wireless hardware.

Space-bound search giant?
Google was clear in the prospectus filed prior to its initial public offering that it plans to take the long view when it comes to business development. But it may be taking an unexpectedly extended view into space with the hiring of Cerf, who was deep into the "serious engineering" of communications standards for spacecraft in his role as a visiting scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. He'll keep up that work when he moves to Google.

The NASA work would dovetail with the far-reaching interests of Google's co-founders. Larry Page, for example, recently joined the board of trustees of the X Prize Foundation, which sponsors competitions to create breakthroughs in space and related technologies. And according to one source, Google has already hired several scientists who worked the NASA Ames Research Center, which is near Google's headquarters.

But as ambitious as Google's execs may be, most think they're a long way from hitting the outer-space market, which was Cerf's focus at NASA.

"In the interplanetary exploration of the solar system, most of the communication systems have been tailored very carefully to the sensor platforms on the spacecraft," Cerf said. "What that means is that two different spacecraft may not be able to communicate with each other."

In time, Cerf hopes researchers can develop a protocol and network that will allow various spacecraft to easy communicate.

"So the vision here as time goes on is that we will accrete a kind of interplanetary backbone that will be made up of the resources of all these various spacecraft," he said, "some of them on surface of planets, some on satellites, some in orbit, some simply flying free."