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The world's most intriguing company

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Impossible dream: Take all the books ever written, digitize them, and make them available to the world.

"We had all these cockamamie schemes for how we could get content," recalls Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products at Google. "We thought, well, could we just buy books? But then you don't get the old content. We thought maybe we should just buy one of every book, like from Amazon, and scan them all."

How long would it take to scan all the world's books? No one knew, so Ms. Mayer and Google cofounder Larry Page decided to experiment with a book, photographing each page so that it could be digitally scanned. "We had a metronome to keep us on rhythm for turning the pages. Larry's job was to click the shutter, and my job was to turn the pages," Mayer says. "It took us about 45 minutes to do a 300-page book."

With that ad hoc experiment, Google began its now controversial Digital Library project last December, signing agreements with the New York Public Library and the libraries of Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Michigan to put their holdings online. Current projection: "Maybe inside of the next 10 years we'll have all the knowledge that's ever been published in book form available and searchable online," she says. "It's really a grand vision."

Grand vision seems to be the touchstone for the seven-year-old company, which earned more than $1.2 billion last quarter and is growing so fast and in so many directions that many observers are left scratching their heads. Just what is Google? Does the company itself even know? If it does, will its supersecret culture allow that vision to flourish?

Where the company's bread is buttered right now is clear: Nearly every one of its billions of dollars comes from selling advertising that appears when people search the Web using its ultrapopular search engine. With analysts saying more and more ads will be moving away from TV and print to online, Google would seem to have a bright future just doing what it's doing.

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