SAN FRANCISCO - In just seven years, Google Inc. has morphed from a bare-bones online search engine into a technological octopus that seems to sprout another intriguing tentacle every other week.
The Mountain View, Calif.,-based company, with $7.1 billion to spend thanks to zealous shareholder support, is now positioned to head down a variety of different paths. And that's spurring an almost-daily guessing game about where Google's flurry of innovation might lead.
Internet and software rivals like Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. aren't the only ones tracking Google. Big media and telecommunications companies also are on the lookout, realizing they too may face a looming threat.
The theories about Google's next move are all over the map.
Is Google cobbling together an Internet-driven computing platform that would challenge Microsoft's stranglehold on the personal computer? Is the company preparing to build a wireless network that would provide free Internet access nationwide? Will Google dip into its huge hoard of cash to pull off a blockbuster deal?
There's a consensus on one overarching point: "Google wants to be everywhere that people are," said Danny Sullivan, who has followed the company closely as editor of the industry newsletter Search Engine Watch.
But Google's long-range objectives remain obscure. Is the company simply exploring different ways to distribute the ads that generate virtually all of its revenue? Or is Google pursuing a much grander plan that ultimately will transform the way people work, communicate, shop, read and even watch TV?
Former Stanford University graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin have never been shy about sharing their ambitions to change the world.
But they have never been keen on discussing the specific implications underlying the company's stated mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who makes all the key decisions with Page and Brin, isn't about to start divulging any secrets now.
"You can't know what we are really up to until you are in the bowels of the company," Schmidt said during a recent interview with The Associated Press.
John Battelle, the author of a recently released book on Google's impact and potential, thinks the company's mystique has turned it into the equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot - an amorphous object that's defined by the hopes and fears of whomever is looking at it.
"When we see a remarkable new company that redefines the technology industry, we either fear it because of all the things it might do or we expect more from it than it can possibly deliver," Battelle said.
Some previous theories about Google's maneuvering already have turned out to be off base. For instance, last year, it was widely believed that the company planned to introduce its own Web browser. Schmidt has since thrown cold water on that idea.
There's little doubt that Google is going to get much bigger.
The company made that clear last week when it announced plans to build a 1-million-square-foot campus just a few miles away from its 915,000-square-foot headquarters, known as the "Googleplex," on the grounds of NASA's Ames Research Center. Google needs the space for thousands of new workers and plans to draw on the brain power of NASA's rocket scientists. The new hires will join a payroll that already has nearly tripled in the past two years to 4,200 employees.
For all its growth, Google remains a relative midget alongside Microsoft, which employs 61,000 workers and holds nearly $38 billion in cash.
But few companies spend more time worrying about Google than Microsoft, and not just because its rival has been raiding its work force to lure away talented engineers. The defectors include Kai-Fu Lee - currently prevented from working on search technology because Microsoft sued him for jumping to Google - and Mark Lucovsky, a key architect of the Windows operating system.
Since 2003, Google has rolled out an assortment of software and services that could coalesce into a challenge to Microsoft's Office suite of applications, says Stephen Arnold, whose recently completed electronic book, "The Google Legacy," examines the company's ambitions beyond online search.
After studying the details of the patents that Google has obtained during the past two years, Arnold is convinced the company plans to build upon the sophisticated computer architecture that drives its search engine to offer a Web-hosted alternative to Windows.
"They have the infrastructure to challenge a company like Microsoft," Arnold said.
All of this hasn't gone unnoticed at Microsoft headquarters, where CEO Steve Ballmer vowed to kill Google in an obscenity-laced tirade late last year, according to a sworn court declaration submitted by Lucovsky in the lawsuit targeting Lee.
Ballmer has described Lucovsky's recollection as a "gross exaggeration."
Google does seem to have designs that extend well beyond the turf of the world's richest and best-known technology company.
While gearing up for its looming showdown with Microsoft, Google also has:
- Launched an effort to create digital versions of entire brick-and-mortar libraries, triggering copyright infringement allegations from the publishing industry, which fears Google won't be able to protect the contents.
- Unveiled a system for talking over the Internet, spurring speculation about a potential Google-branded telephone.
- Dabbled in wireless Internet access at a handful of connection points near its Silicon Valley home and now wants to extend the service throughout San Francisco, inspiring predictions about a nationwide network that will enable people to get on the Web for free.
- Confirmed the development of an online payment system that hints at company designs on electronic commerce.
- Started to stockpile video and transcripts of previously broadcast material, fueling theories that Google wants to play a bigger role in television.
- And raised $5.3 billion in two separate stock offerings, providing ample financial ammunition for a major acquisition or investment in other projects that might open even more doors.
Industry analyst Lauren Rich Fine suspects Google might use some of that money to buy a stake in its biggest business partner, America Online - and thus thwart Microsoft's reported attempt to form an alliance with AOL.
Google declined to comment on that possibility.
There's already plenty on Google's plate, so much so that some industry observers suspect the company will become a 21st-century Icarus, a high-flying Internet company brought down by its own hubris.
Others believe Google possesses the technical dexterity to wrap its arms around all of its disparate projects.
But even the optimists like Battelle have their doubts.
"There are no guarantees for Google," he says. "The biggest question is whether they can accomplish everything they want before someone else comes along with even better ideas."