Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Birthdays: Google, GNU and the silicon chip

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about some birthdays and tried to look at what these different things had meant to us.

Read on for my speaking notes, or listen to the audio download as ogg or mp3.

…then our technology slot, and this week Colin Jackson, to talk about some technology birthdays. (Google, Gnu and the Silicon Chip)

Q: What birthdays have you got for us?

A: First of all, we’ll talk about the Internet’s most powerful ten year old – Google.

Google started out as a search engine only ten years ago – I remember clearly trying it instead of the ones I used at the time and immediately deciding that it gave better results. It’s stayed on top of the search game since despite challenges from some very well funded players – Google still has the hearts and minds, it’s become the word people use to describe searching on the Web.

Q: Is Google seen as the best because people don’t want to change to something else?

A: There are those would say that Google is only the popular through inertia – its rivals would say that – but I think the Internet public are a fickle bunch and if a seriously better all round search engine emerged, people would desert Google in droves. I’m sure the folks at Google know that.

Q: What makes a better search engine?

A: I can think of three things which drew people to Google in the early days and still hold good – one is the accuracy of its hits, another is the uncluttered design, its not full of things screaming at you for attention, and the last is a clean, honest approach to advertising.

Q: Google’s funded by advertising, right?

A: Yes – make no mistake, almost all its income comes form targeting advertising to people who are searching. But they only allow text based ads, that’s no jumping pictures or sounds, and they make it really clear which listings are paid for or sponsored. You can’t buy a position on the main part of the Google Search, that’s always been the case and it’s often not the case for some of the others.

Q: Google has moved a long way beyond search, hasn’t it?

A: Yes, there’s Google Earth and Google Maps and Youtube – that’s owned by Google now – there’s Google Calendar, Gmail email. Google think that you should do use their services for doing, say, your word processing or keeping your files rather than using the ones on your own computer.

Q: And should you?

A: It has advantages – if you computer dies and you don’t have a backup, all your files are toast. And keeping your files on Google’s servers makes it easy to work with others, and it means that you can work from any Internet computer, not just your home machine. So, the approach has advantages – it’s called “Cloud Computing” because of the notion that the work gets done somewhere out in an indeterminate cloud of servers that you don’t need to worry about. But there are problems. Recently access to Gmail and Google Docs was down for a day or so. That’s a very long time if you are running your business on them. So I’d look at a two-stringed approach – Google plus your home computer.

And Google has obviously decided that existing software on your computer isn’t good enough for what its trying to achieve – it has recently released its own web browser, called “Chrome”, which aims to get right out of your face and provide access directly to the web sites you are using. I’ve had a play with it, its quite nice, but it’s very much a beta and has some significant security holes. Don’t use it yet for anything you care about. If you run Windows XP or Vista you can download Chrome and have a play.

Q: Next birthday?

A: Gnu is 25 years old.

Q: Gnu?

A: Yes, that’s Richard Stallman’s project to build an entire computing environment out of free software. And remember, Stallman’s definition of free means the freedom to make changes and pass them on – it doesn’t refer to the price. Stallman founded the Gnu project 25 years ago, and it has led directly to the operating system called GNU/Linux which is now in huge use around the world. Also , Gnu has built many of the tools which are in use across the open source and free software worlds.

Now Stephen Fry – remember him? – is an avid fan of free software and keeps saying so on his blog. And now there is a video of Stephen Fry celebrating Gnu’s 25th birthday with a rather luscious-looking cake. I’ll link it up today.

Q: And who else has a birthday?

A: Not so much a who as a what. The integrated circuit is 50.

Q: Integrated circuit?

A: If I said silicon chip you’d know what I mean – it’s just that the early ones weren’t silicon.

Q: How important are they?

A: They are core to every aspect of computers, the Internet and electronics in general. The earliest electronics was done with radio valves – you’re too young to remember them, but they are big glowing glass things that get hot. Their function is amplify a signal. They take a small varying current, say the sound of my voice in this microphone, and amplifying it into t a big varying current. Big radio transmitters tend still to have valves, because they are the best way of dealing with the really high amounts of power that radio transmitters put out. But mostly, radio valves have been replaced by transistors.

Q: Like a transistor radio?

A: Yes. The transistor radio’s main strength was its size. You just couldn’t get valves small enough, and they needed a high powered battery.

Q: So what is a transistor?

A: Like a radio valve, it lets a small electric current control a larger one. The mechanism is different – a radio valve works by making electrons flow through a vacuum – that’s what’s inside the glass – and using a charged grid to repel some of them, which controls the current. A transistor is a solid lump of something that almost conducts electricity. It just needs a few electrons added. And the process of making a transistor ensures that there are a few spare electrons in the material. Adding a small voltage to the middle of the transistor can attracts the electrons to the right area of the transistor and permits a current to flow. Some people got the Nobel prize for inventing that.

Transistors are everywhere now. Initially they were made of a rather exotic metal called germanium, but now they are mainly made of silicon, which is an incredibly abundant element you can get by just melting down sand.

A transistor is just a lump of silicon with some cleverly-managed properties. The next breakthrough came when someone figured out that, if you are making a transistor on a lump of germanium or silicon, why just stop at one? Why not make several? Why not a make hundred? After all, with a hundred transistors you can do some quite complex things.

Q: And that’s a silicon chip?

A: Yes. They look like a flat lump of dark grey stuff with a lot of little metal legs, which are the connectors. And chips began by replacing a lot transistors in radios and stereos and similar devices where you basically just want to amplify a weak signal into a loud one, but it wasn’t long before people figured out how to make transistors flip form one extreme to the other – go from fully off to fully on as fast as possible – which is where digital electronics came from. And with the ability of transistors to do digital, and a way to fabricate a lot of them in one place, the stage was set for modern computers and the Internet.


As always, you can discuss this broadcast at

Google is ten years young. And its new “chrome” browser is an interesting move, but it has been having having teething problems.

The Gnu project is 25 – celebrate with Stephen Fry.

The integrated circuit is 50 years old.

posted by colin at 11:11 am  

1 Comment

  1. Great segment on Nine to Noon

    Comment by Richard — 18 September 2008 @ 9:25 pm

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