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Google is now 23, here is how the company has changed how we use the internet

Google turns 23 this week. I was a wee lad when Google was founded back in 1998 and the only knowledge I had of computers was from the “Demolition Man” and Angelina Jolie’s classic “Hackers”. It was only later that I touched one when I was in my last year of high school. It took me a year after this to get online for the first time. I lived before Google was a verb and so am the perfect man to talk about how the company has changed our lives for good and for the worst.

Back when I was in high school we had computers but they were not connected to the internet. If you got into an argument over the Gulf War or football facts you have to get to the library and rummage through the 60 or so giant volumes of Encyclopedia Brittania and hope there was an entry for the item you were looking for. For football, you had to go through stacks of papers manually looking at articles. Often times you failed to get what you were looking for.

St Faith’s is my alma matter and being a school of unparalleled academic excellence, it meant that I also went to college with almost all the people I went to High School with. Even though the college had internet it was a 1.5 Mbps VSAT connection from TelOne and to preserve bandwidth a lot of sites that were deemed to be of not much value were blocked.

We had to use the University’s limited Horde webmail clients to access emails. More often than not the email client took its time to relay our emails to the world even after claiming they had been sent, leading to all sorts of difficulties with lecturers. While Google was already a search engine few people knew about it. We used Yahoo!, Altavista, AskJeeves and Dogpile which were practically directories. They relied on humans to add information to their databases.

Then along came Google and magic

I first stumbled upon Google during a DStv Mindset Learning program featuring Dawn Matthews of Scandal! fame. That was a life-changing experience. In those days Google was not yet in Zimbabwe but had a Google.co.za address. I introduced this wonderful search engine to my friends and they too were amazed by how comprehensive the search results were.

A couple of months later Google unleashed Gmail to the world. You might not appreciate what a big deal Gmail was if you were born in the 2000s. Back then Yahoo! were the kings. They offered paltry free webmail storage powered by advertisements. Getting your desired username was impossible and you had to be content with something like garikaidzoma32@yahoo.com. If you didn’t log in they deleted your account without warning. Here Gmail was offering:

  • 2GB of email storage, that was unheard of. In comparison the Gateway 2000 machine I cut my tech skills on had a harddrive with 1.9 GB.
  • Free POP, IMAP and SMTP now that was new. Everyone else including local companies asked you to pay for this. There were people who signed up with local ISPs for an email package. Just like we have people now paying MNOs just to get on WhatsApp we had people paying ISPs for just emails! Not even ones with your own domain but @mweb.co.zw emails etc
  • Free advanced Spam filtering. Spam was a nightmare as most email providers struggled to deal with it. Google had these amazing algorithms that kept your inbox relatively cleaner than local ISPs or Yahoo! for that matter
  • New email naming schemes such as the use of dots and underscores allowed people to get desired names @gmail.com

Then there was Blogger and that is how I got started in Blogging. Even though I was doing a Business course I had always been a writer at heart. So I started my poetry blog. All I had to do was click buttons and my blog was published to the world without me learning any HTML. I was amazed.

YouTube was a constant source of frustration as you would hear all the positive things that people had to say about the platform on CNN but you couldn’t use it due to bandwidth limitations. The University had it blocked. During the first days of its premiere, somebody released the first two episodes of Game of Thrones on YouTube. I spend the entire day waiting for the videos to buffer and then watching them in the Econet Internet Cafe that was on First Street.

The other Google products

It would take days to talk about how Google has revolutionised our lives but here are some highlights:

  • Remember GoogleTalk? That was WhatsApp before WhatsApp was a thing. I don’t know how Google lost this one. Their client was amazing. I think it maybe because they didn’t have a good mobile client and required a Google Account for you to use the service.
  • Google Images
  • In college I relied heavily on Google Scholar. These days the main search engine is so good you don’t need to visit Google’s subsearch services like Google Books, Google Patents, Google Arts and Culture etc anymore thanks to it’s machine learning but those tools were handy.
  • Without Google Ads and Google Adsense the internet would not be what it is today. It’s an easy way to monetise that allowed ordinary men and women to run influential blogs and challenge traditional media.
  • Google Drive – brought the cloud to use peasants together with Google Docs. It weaned me off Microsfot’s superb Microsoft Office packages. OpenOffice and LibreOffice are not great replacements.
  • Google Fonts – web designers rely on these on a daily basis and so do designers. I especially love Roboto.
  • Google’s Translate was always a hilarious source of “lost in transalation” jokes. It does work like 10% of the time and helps you get an idea of what a foreign site is about but for most languages it’s hopeless.
  • If you drive you know how great Google Maps is. It works like 90% of the time although sometimes it gives the oddest routes. Google Earth was another wonder.
  • AMP pages are changing the mobile web
  • Android-do I even need to talk about this?
  • reCAPTCHA – those fire hydrants stopped bots dead in their tracks
  • Google Toolbar – yeah that happened. There was a time Internet Explorer was so entrenched the only way to get visibility was making a toolbar.
  • Google Chrome – you are reading this on Chrome aren’t you?
  • Nexus phones – these were a disaster
  • Nest-awesome product that Google has failed I am afraid
  • Google Public DNS – this liberated the internet from idiotic ISPs who fiddled with their DNS settings and wanted to curate the internet. 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4 are numbers that served me over the years
  • Angular – if you are a developer you will appriciate this one.
  • Google Photos has allowed me consume and store my photos in ways that I never thought possible

Google is the internet

It’s often joked that Google is the internet but it’s true. Having lived before its rise I can assure you that this statement is more true than people realise. You get glimpses of how powerful Google is during those rarer moments when one of their services goes down. Even in the teapot-shaped country, Google has changed lives.

The thing though is while it specifically had a “don’t be evil” motto back in the day now they don’t seem to subscribe anymore. With that much power, one shudders when one imagines the damage they can do. We used to admire Google but now we depend on it. We fear it. Google hasn’t just changed the internet and the way we use it. They have become the internet.

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