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Google is a tech giant now, but it’s been a survivalist since it started

The story of Toolbar, Chrome, and Android — three attempts by Google to survive in a rapidly changing world.

A glowing white Google logo on the side of a brick building.
A view of the Google building in Dublin, Ireland.
Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Today it might seem that Google’s power and success were inevitable — thanks to Larry Page and Sergey Brin cracking the search code — but the reality is quite different. Google was born in a state of war in the early 2000s, subject to the whims of Microsoft, a tech goliath whose Internet Explorer browser was on 90 percent of all computers at the time and essentially controlled most people’s access to Google’s search engine. And even though Google won that battle, it’s faced new ones ever since.

In the second episode of Land of the Giants: The Google Empire — our new seven-part podcast about the company’s ascent to a global behemoth — we examine how Google, which is currently being sued by the Department of Justice and several state attorneys general over antitrust issues, has had to fight for survival throughout its existence.

Google reached its current heights only by adopting a survivalist mentality — first clawing its way to sustained relevance, and then eventually to dominance in areas like search and mobile operating systems. The company’s early fear of failure still seems visible in many of its current decisions, such as when it pays competitors (like Apple) to make it their operating system’s default search engine, or when it fills its search results with its own products.

Google’s survivalist story begins at a time when Internet Explorer reigned supreme and Microsoft could have easily displaced Google as its browser’s default search option. Back then, you didn’t type search queries in your browser’s address bar. To search with Google, you’d either type in the address bar or hit the browser’s “search” button (which took you to Google’s webpage). Microsoft, if it so desired, could build its own search engine and make that the default, or it could enable search in the address bar with something other than Google. If Microsoft had done something like that, it likely would have been the end of Google. So Google knew it needed a workaround.

That workaround was Google’s Toolbar, a browser extension that added a Google search bar right under the browser’s address bar. A few years after Google released it, hundreds of millions of people were using Toolbar, thanks largely to Google signing distribution deals with companies like Adobe to put it in their install packages, and also its ease of use. Google, for a moment, felt like it solved its problem.

But as Google started developing other web-based programs that would become core products, like Gmail, Docs, and Calendar, the notion of allowing another company — especially a competitor like Microsoft — to control people’s experience of the web made Google uneasy. Google saw Microsoft developing its own search engine, first called Live Search and then called Bing, and decided it could not rely on its Toolbar alone to encourage people to use Google search over competitors. The company needed its own browser. That’s what led it to create Chrome.

Google Chrome took off because it was fast, simple, and easy to use, and also because Google used similar distribution deals from Toolbar to push it out to the masses. But while Chrome was a smashing success — it’s now the dominant desktop browser in the world — it provided only momentary relief. Because just as Chrome established itself on desktop, the mobile revolution took off, leaving Google exposed yet again in a new area.

Google didn’t want another company — whether it was Microsoft or Apple — controlling how people accessed the web and its products from their phones and other handheld devices. It also knew it would benefit from some sort of standardization of the mobile web. And that became the foundation for Android, the mobile operating system it acquired in 2005 and developed inside its company. Today, Android powers almost 85 percent of the world’s phones, meaning Google is the pathway to the web for most people, not simply a website where you go to find stuff.

Without Android and Chrome, Google, “would have been relegated to probably irrelevance,” Brian Rakowski, a Google VP of product management who works on both Chrome and Google’s mobile efforts told us. “We probably would have been either stamped out or a very, very tiny, probably becoming irrelevant company if we weren’t able to.”

All these battles got Google, once a scrappy startup trying to not get crushed by Microsoft, to where it is today — at the top of the tech world, but also facing allegations that it’s grown too big and is illegally stifling competition.

For more stories about Google’s incredible rise, covering everything from the mobile phone wars to the company’s internal tensions to its current antitrust battles, subscribe now to Land of the Giants: The Google Empire. And please tell us what you think: We’re on Twitter at @kantrowitz and @shiringhaffary.