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Can google compete with Apple in terms of material design?

Can bright pipes and G-bikes help Google prove it takes design as seriously as its rivals, asks Rory Olcayto

My first encounter with Google was in October 1999, in the basement of my brother’s Boston home. I can’t remember what I was searching for, but I’d fired up AltaVista to find it. My brother, an MIT graduate and an early adopter of all things hi-tech, leaned over my shoulder and said, ‘Use Google instead. Much better.’

In its first year - 1998 - Google performed 9,800 searches a day. Last year that figure stood at 4,717,000,000. Seemingly from thin air Google conjures useful (and pointless) information: train times, cookery lessons, Korean pop, compromising photos of your colleagues and interactive tours of streets in cities you’ve never heard of. It has changed how we think about information, and how we use it. There is a sense that Google itself is like thin air too: ephemeral, non-physical, an all-seeing eye.

Last week, Google made a big effort to change that perception with its new data centres website and a catalogue of snapshots by Chinese architectural photographer Connie Zhou on ‘where the internet lives’. They give ‘a never-before-seen look at the technology, the people and the places that keep Google running.’

Many of the images have a strong environmental theme. Google asks: ‘What makes a good hometown for the Web? Whether it’s the Finnish waters of Hamina, or the factory town of Lenoir, North Carolina, we look for locations that will help make our data centres as efficient as possible’ and photos show wildflowers growing alongside them, a herd of deer grazing nearby.

One shows steam rising above the cooling towers of the Dalles data centre in Oregon. ‘These plumes of water vapour create a quiet mist at dusk’ the caption reads. Another shows a beautiful sunset over a centre in Saint Ghislain, Belgium, which, says Google, ‘illuminates our water storage tanks and cooling towers’.

The focus on water towers and cooling systems is telling. Zhou’s artistry gives them an eye-candy gloss but there is another message here, subtly encoded: The internet is hot. Emails have a carbon footprint. YouTube adds to global warming. And Google is doing something about it.

google

The interior photographs are the most startling. We see brightly painted pipes in Google’s trademark primary colours heading inward, to a vanishing point far in the distance: ‘Thousands of feet of pipe line the inside of our data centres,’ Google explains. The look and feel is Willy Wonka spliced with the Pompidou; Tati mixed with Gilliam.

Others show vast halls of servers and drives, the tech used to index 20 billion web pages a day. In one we see a neon yellow G-bike, used by Google staff to get around the buildings. There’s even an indoor Street View tour of its facility in Lenoir, North Carolina, a spooky videogame experience, like Half-Life for (almost) real.

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This candid approach is surprising: secrecy is a major part of Google’s success. The algorithms that power its search tools and its advertising software are as closely guarded as Smaug’s gold. So why now? A few reasons: Google’s share price crashed last week because a mistimed press release showed less than hoped for profits.

Zhou’s photos are a welcome distraction. And by revealing its physical presence, one that is environmentally sound and architecturally interesting - it is currently refitting an Aalto factory in Finland - Google can begin to compete with its great rival Apple in terms of material design. But maybe Google, 14 this year, is just showing off. It’s what teenagers do.

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