Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Best Thing Google Has Ever Done

I'm generally not a huge fan of Google. My "Personal Webmind" design, and the Webmind search engine created by myself, Renato Mangini Dias, Greg Greenshpun, Meyer Rozengauz, Ben Goertzel and Cassio Pennachin, provided superior design and search results to Google search when we tried to sell them the company in 2001. (I am still suspicious of the similar offerings from Google that cropped up later, but perhaps I should attribute them to "great minds think alike" and be done with it.)

Among Google's other offerings, there have been other shortcomings as well. Orkut became worthless as it was overrun with spammers and trolls. Google Maps is pretty cool, but to me it still is an "almost there" reworking of a project by Michael Potmesil, formerly of Bell Labs, which had most of the current Google Maps functionality in 1997-98 when I was at the company (sans the funding to send trucks around taking street photos), plus lofted 3D cityscapes. YouTube is a hive of content thieves and moronic commentary that nearly drowns out what little of value to be found on it, and even this here Blogger is merely LiveJournal rehashed with more marketing money behind it.

But Google Book Search is the bees knees. In some ways it is nothing but Amazon's "search inside this book" without being tied to a store. However, Google Book Search provides better bibiliographical information, and features something which I think constitutes the first real attempt by Google to live up to their self-proclaimed "don't be evil" edict.

That attempt, which thus far looks like it might be successful, is subsidized scanning of public domain books found in libraries. Google has finally provided a service I find completely invaluable, and which is sufficiently better than the competitors to warrant the hype. The PDF scans of old books are even more interesting than Project Gutenberg texts in that they preserve the original formatting (which is very interesting to me, but if you don't care, many of the books are also available as plaintext).

I hope that there isn't fallout from this project in the form of libraries deciding to discard or destroy the books themselves based on the availability of digital versions. Digital storage is too short-lived to justify discarding real media like books, but the incredible convenience of not having to dig around in stacks or wait for interlibrary loans for old, rare books is a fantastic idea. If Google takes this project to the point where a truly substantial catalog of tens or hundreds of thousands of books in the public domain (based on expired copyrights, mostly) becomes available, I will have to grudgingly admit that Google has finally done something that might make me stop being disgusted with them.