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15 Years Ago, Google’s Co-Founder Had a Wacky Idea that Forever Changed How We Look at the World

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Most of the things Google makes are easy to take for granted. In hindsight, however, a lot of them seem kind of ridiculous when you start to think about it.

Google Search is probably the best example. What if there was a website where you could type in a question and it would search all of the internet and give you the answer? We do it a few billion times every day without thinking, but if you were to think about it, it’s kind of mind-blowing that Google isn’t kidding when it says its mission is to organize all of the world’s information and make it useful.

But, what if, instead of just organizing all of the world’s information so that people could type in a location or a question about a place and get a result, you made something that let them feel like they were walking down the street? What if instead of looking at a map of a country or a city or a neighborhood, people could stand on the sidewalk and look around?

That idea seems wacky, but that’s what Google did 15 years ago when it launched Street View. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Street View completely changed the way we look at the world–literally in some cases. Wacky ideas have a way of doing that.

When Google launched its search engine in 1997, the two key pieces of technology needed to organize all of that information were pretty straightforward. You needed a ‘robot’ to navigate and index all of the websites on the internet, and some way to decide which of those websites are relevant to a given search query. 

At the time, there were a little more than a million websites. That sounds like a lot, but it wasn’t, really. Today there are just under 2 billion websites. Once you figure out how to organize it all, it’s just about adding more robots and more servers to store and process all that information. That is, of course, a massive oversimplification, but it works for our purposes.

Mapping the entire world, on the other hand, seems like a pretty hard thing to do. It requires a lot of effort and time. Photographing all of its cities and interesting places in 3D is even more complicated.

Still, that’s exactly what Google’s co-founder, Larry Page, envisioned when he strapped a camera to his car and drove around the streets of San Francisco. The initial results weren’t very good, mostly because the company was basically making this up as it went. The fact that it worked at all was especially impressive when you consider that when the team first started on the project that would become Street View, there was no Google Maps. 

Today, Google Maps is the default way most people navigate the world. Yes, there are other map apps, but Google’s version is still the most used. It’s how people get directions, find restaurants, and get local recommendations when we go on vacation.

It’s also how we explore places even when we can’t visit them physically. That might be the smartest thing about Street View–it’s an ingenious feature that makes an app you use all the time even better. 

Just place the little orange person on a road with a blue line and you’re instantly teleported to that location. You can move and look around and see what you’d see if you were actually there. It’s ridiculous–but in a good way, of course.

I share the story because there’s a good chance you might have a few wacky ideas of your own–that’s why you became an entrepreneur in the first place. You have an idea that seems ridiculous, but instead of asking “why would anyone do that?” you’re convinced it could change the world. 

At first, it probably won’t. Some people will think it’s pretty absurd, but honestly, that’s fine. It wasn’t, someone would have tried already. At a minimum, you might just make the world a more interesting place to live.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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