The Bazaar Way to Bet
If Google isn't already the number one search engine, it might as well be. What else is there? Even Yahoo gave up and started OEMing Google a few months back. They've got 10,000-plus Linux boxes sending out bots that crawl over 1.3 billion pages and bring back results so complete that every page is cached in searchable form. They're also on top of images and Usenet groups in a huge way, even though they hardly publicize either while they continue (at this writing) to tweak the systems publicly as beta.
Advertising on Google has more in common with your newspaper's classifieds than with anything on billboards, magazines or TV screens. This observation is meant as flattery. They are about the only form of advertising that enjoys positive demand, which means Google stands a chance of becoming the first outfit to create a form of web-based advertising that users welcome—no mean feat if they pull it off.
Their search results are relevanced (how's that for a neoverb?) by inbound links rather than by clever metatags and other sneaky HTML hacks on the searched pages. If anything, Google measures authority more than anything else. Since linking isn't an automatic matter with most text processing software, it takes a conscious effort for an author to point. Therefore, Google's thinking (roughly) goes, every link to a page is a vote by an interested human being for the value of the pointed-to page as a source.
Google calls its system “a unique combination of hardware and software”. Specifically, it's ten thousand boxes running Linux. We all know the technical answer to the “Why Linux?” question. There's an obvious economic one too: it's cheap to deploy on commodity hardware. More importantly, it lowers the threshold of deployment. It was easier for Google's creators to imagine the service running on Linux than on anything else. But finally, Google provides a democratic answer with its own search results.
See, in addition to ranking search results, Google also lists the number of unique pages found to contain the search term (or terms). When I looked a few minutes ago (when putting together the LJ Index, where these sort of numbers are also posted), Google found 31.6 million pages containing the word “linux”. Let's put this in perspective:
active x: 2,350,000
On that last one, the top two (out of 231 million) were LinuxGames.com and Richard Stallman's Why Software Should Not Have Owners page.
If markets are conversations, what does this say about the Linux market? Is this market—our bazaar—really bigger than sex and Microsoft?
Why? Because there's a lot to talk about and keep talking about; because it constantly changes. No matter how important Microsoft continues to make itself (by expertly leveraging its incumbent importance), the company's protectiveness about its intellectual property puts a lid on the quantity of Microsoft subjects one can talk about.
There is a limit to how deeply one can enjoy expertise in—or involvement with—Microsoft software. Where a significant hunk of Microsoft intellectual property is nobody's business, all of Linux is anybody's business.
Which means Linux, as a topic of expertise, is better for business than Microsoft, or any other commercial software company that limits conversation around the very software on which it wants everybody to depend.
This is what we need to remember when we speculate about the viability of Linux companies. A lot of them got clobbered in the dot-com bust, along with everybody else. If we want to put our trust in market forces, it's pretty hard to ignore one of the world's biggest conversations.
Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal and coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto. His next book will be Real Markets: What They Are and How They Work.