Google’s Open House: Of Ping-Pong, the Gov, and Four Local Projects

It wouldn’t be a visit to Google if it didn’t include a game of some sort.

In the elevator on the way up to Google’s new Kendall Square digs, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was “talking smack” about his table-tennis prowess, according to Google’s Cambridge site director Stephen Vinter. So before allowing the governor to leave the housewarming party Google threw for itself yesterday, Vinter challenged him to a ping-pong match in the company’s colorful cafeteria/lounge.

Nobody kept score. And let’s just say that neither player is about to make the Olympic team.

“So, this is just a typical day at the office,” Vinter remarked, as TV cameramen recorded the match and newspaper photographers flashed away.

“It is for me—with the press watching every move,” Patrick quipped back.

Ping Pong at GoogleThe half-spontaneous, half-staged moment of geek athleticism was in keeping with the studiously casual atmosphere that Google prefers to project to the world—and that is captured much more precisely by the company’s newly renovated space at Five Cambridge Center than it was by Google’s cramped old offices at the Cambridge Innovation Center at One Broadway. The third-floor cafeteria, which was also the setting for the Google Games pitting MIT students against Harvard students five weeks ago, feels for all the world like a basement rec room on ‘roids, except for the wraparound windows (admitting some welcome springtime sun yesterday) and the impressive Fenway Park mural, with its caricatures of local-born celebrities like Leonard Nimoy in the stands.

The open house included the requisite serious panel discussion, with Vinter, the governor, and a few Google sales and engineering execs fielding softball questions about Google’s importance for the local economy. But the real point of the day was to give journalists and local luminaries a look at the space where Google programmers and salespeople will continue to manage the New England theater of the company’s war for global dominance in search, social media, and online advertising.

And the Boston Globe‘s Rob Weisman got it exactly right in his story yesterday evening when he observed that the space is “done up in the company’s extravagant, self-consciously quirky Silicon Valley style.” Between the ping-pong tables, the massage chairs, the yoga balls, the Rock Band equipment, and the abundant microkitchens—all cloned from the Googleplex in Mountain View—it’s a mystery how anyone at Google gets any work done. But one clue came from a staffer accompanying journalists on the office tour, who said Googlers who clamp themselves into the massage chairs usually bring their laptops along for the ride.

Please Do Not Feed the EngineersAlong with the architecture, Google showed off four consumer-facing projects involving Cambridge-based programmers, including YouTube, the Friend Connect platform for adding social networking features such as message boards and picture-sharing to existing websites, the Book Search project that’s making the full text of many new and public-domain books searchable online, and the Android open-source phone operating system.

Rich Miner, who’s been leading the Android effort since Google bought his mobile-software startup in 2005, was on hand to demonstrate the latest version of the system, which currently runs on Windows, Mac, or Linux computers inside an “emulator” that shows how it will look and behave on an actual phone. The interface plainly builds on many of the user-interface innovations pioneered by Apple for the iPhone, but with some interesting improvements, including pop-up menus that allow quick access to basic functions without returning to the phone’s main screen, and the ability to jump from link to link inside a Web page with a thumb-click, enabling one-handed interaction.

Of course, the biggest thing distinguishing Android from the iPhone’s operating system is that it’s open-source, meaning that anyone can adapt it for their own phone hardware, and that anyone can write and distribute applications for it without having to go through a central authority. Miner said that the project is on schedule so far, and that the first phone running Android will ship in the second half of 2008.

Before leaving the event, I put it to Vinter that the environments Google has assembled at its Cambridge office—one of 10 Google satellite sites in North America—is so comfortable for young software engineers that many who might otherwise start their own entrepreneurial ventures are instead enticed into joining the search giant, perhaps stunting innovation in the region.

“I think that kind of misses the bigger point, which is that too many smart people are leaving this area,” Vinter responded. “We can’t do enough to create more opportunities for them. The more we can do to build a mixed ecosystem of small, medium, and large-sized companies, the more it will be self-sustaining and self-expanding, which leads to more competition, which leads to more opportunities.” For more from Vinter on Google’s approach to hiring, see Globe writer Scott Kirsner’s video from the open house.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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