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In the Plex is a must-read book for understanding Google’s history and thought process

August 18, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka

Google, Reviews


Had a few things gone differently, you might not be reading this website or arguing if the HTC Sensation or Samsung Galaxy S II is the superior phone. One “yes” in place of a “no” here or there, neither Android nor Google as we know it today would exist.

That’s the lesson learned from In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. Written by Wired writer Steven Levy, In the Plex is a fascinating look into Google’s transformation from a project by two Stanford graduate students to one of the biggest companies in the world. The book recounts how co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin – with the help of CEO-turned-Chairman Eric Schmidt – took their “data-driven,” view of how technology should affect the world and redefined the way users obtain information.

In the Plex tells Google’s story with information gathered from candid interviews, documents and publications, and an unprecedented level of fly-on-the-wall knowledge that Levy gained after years of dealing with the company as a tech journalist. While working for Wired, Levy was granted long-term access to Google engineers, and observed several team meetings. The book has an incredible level of detail and research that expertly shows how close Google was to being acquired in its earlier years. Somehow, it outlasted the companies that might have bought it and went on to carry out a few acquisitions of its own.

Levy provides insight to how the Brin-Page-Schmidt triumvirate ushered Google through crises like dealing with China’s censor-happy and highly restrictive government. While this and many other major events in Google’s history have been well-documented, few have covered with such length and detail.

For instance, readers learn that Andy Rubin originally wanted a recommendation from Google’s founders as a bargaining chip for negotiations with manufacturers who might be swayed to build Android phones. (Rubin was originally laughed out of the offices of one of today’s most prominent Android manufacturers.) Google instead gave Rubin a glowing recommendation – by buying his company and elevating Google’s mobile presence in the process.

In the Plex briefly touches on Android – even showing how Google’s embrace of it chilled the once warm relationship with Steve Jobs and Apple – but it’s an overall look at Google’s culture, reach, and formative years. Levy does well to show how Google became the corporate giant we know today, and how easily none of that might have happened had a few decisions triggered different outcomes.

While I would have loved to see more attention paid to Android, In the Plex is a fabulous book about Google as a company and self-professed agent of change. Other than visiting the company’s Mountain View headquarters “The Googleplex” on a consistent basis, there’s no better way to gain an understanding of Google.