Yesterday, we were really excited to see Travelstormer launch - it is co-owned by Harmonypark, and developed by us (mostly by Ebony), and we're pretty excited to see it go live. I really think Travelstormer sums up what we do best as a company, and also as an industry as a whole - taking tangible, real life problems like organising a holiday with friends, and using technology to make them easier.
From what I can see, this attitude is one shared by Google (ignoring Wave for the sake of argument). Their acquisition of ITA, as announced today, seems like a pretty exciting turn of events for those of us with an interest in online applications related to travel. Obviously, it's pretty vindicating to see the most successful technology company in the world take an interest in the same sector we're betting on with our little app. However, I'd also bet that in the future, there might also be some fairly solid positive externalities to come out of this for those of us involved in the online travel sector.
Google's mission statement - "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" is exactly what's at play here - as Marissa Mayer, VP Search and User Experience says on their blog:
While online flight search is rapidly evolving, we think there is room for more competition and greater innovation. Google has already come up with new ways to organize hard-to-find information like images, newspaper archives, scholarly papers, books and geographic data. Once we’ve completed our acquisition of ITA, we’ll work on creating new flight search tools that will make it easier for you to search for flights, compare flight options and prices and get you quickly to a site where you can buy your ticket.
This is really exciting stuff for anyone who uses air travel at all, but I also think it's going to be great for technologists and entrepreneurs working in the same space. To see why, it's worth looking at Google's history of acquisitions, and seeing how they have been informed by this broad strategy of facilitating universal access to information.
I think the list of companies acquired by Google can be split up into a few distinct categories. There's the companies (mostly startups) who have a going concern in a field in which Google does not currently have a presence who are bought up, and essentially carry on providing that same service, sometimes under a Google logo, sometimes not. Here, I'm thinking of sites such as Youtube, Blogger, as well as things like Google Docs and Google Analytics (originally Writely and Urchin stats, respectively). These acquisitions tend to diversify Google's interests - giving them a stake in a market in which they didn't previously have an interest.
Secondly, there's the acquisitions of competitors, or companies that have technology or IP that is of use to a current active business interest of Google's. This includes most of their purchases of search and advertising companies, and serves to entrench their positions within these markets.
However, there's a third category that I think spans these two, which I think the ITA purchase fits into quite nicely - This consists of those companies with a large base of information and knowledge which would constitute a massive public good if only the public had access to it. Ultimately this strengthens Google's core business - Search - as well as benefiting the public through all the externalities that unfettered (and easy, thanks to Google's existing search technology) access to this information brings. It's a win-win for Google and us as consumers (modulo the obvious privacy issues with some types of data), with only those with an interest in restricting access to that information losing out. The best example of this to my mind is Google maps (along with Earth and Streetview), which has revolutionised the way we access geographical information.
This revolution happened in two ways - The fact that Google made the physical world as searchable as the online world with their own maps application (which even shared the familiar interface of their web search tool) is undoubtedly a massively important feat. However, beyond this, Google maps created value from that sort of information by providing APIs for other people to build upon the service it offers, allowing developers and businesses to build a geographical component into their own applications. As a result we've seen massive growth in location-based web services, and a surge in interest in GPS and related technologies, as evinced by Wired UK's excitement over services such as Foursquare and Gowalla last month.
A similar strategy informed Google's forays into indexing public data in the US, and challenging the hegemony of Westlaw and Lexis Nexis by indexing legal decisions as part of its Scholar service. If I'm correct, and Google's acquisition of ITA is a reflection of the same strategy, that of profiting through encouraging access, I'm confident that we'll start seeing Google providing APIs to access flight and travel data, something that provides loads of exciting opportunities for those of us who are building travel-related online services.