Monday, February 11, 2013


Larry Page is surrounded. On one side, Google’s (GOOG) chief executive officer confronts Facebook, the social networking phenom that is about to go public. On his other side isApple (AAPL), which has moved the playing field off the desktop computer—Google’s fiefdom—and onto smartphones and tablets. Thus Page, who became CEO of Google a year ago, has the task of steering the company he co-founded through territory defined by two rivals while fending off accusations that his brainchild has become yet another lumbering monopolist or, worse, a follower.

Sitting for an April 3 interview at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., Page bridles at any suggestion that Google isn’t the destiny-defining innovator it once was. He’s wearing geek business casual—fleece jacket, logo shirt, jeans, black Converse sneakers. “Producing the best [products] we possibly can for users is our paramount thing,” he says. “I think we have demonstrated that over a very long period of time, with a whole variety of different issues we’ve faced around the world.”

Page isn’t the first founder to reassert himself as leader of the company he helped to create. There was Howard Schultz’s return to run Starbucks (SBUX), which has worked out well, and Michael Dell’s reclaiming the reins of his eponymous PC maker, which has not. For a still-young tech entrepreneur such as Page, Steve Jobs’s triumphant homecoming at Apple in 1997 is the most obvious benchmark of success. Their situations aren’t totally analogous—unlike Jobs, Page never left the company he founded. Though the comparison is apt in one important way: In the 1990s, Apple needed a more sophisticated operating system to navigate changes in the computing landscape, and so bought Jobs’s company, NeXT. Today, Google also needs to figure out a new world, in which its users increasingly see the Web through the lens of their friends, instead of a cold, calculating algorithm. Although Google started social networks such as Orkut in the last decade, Page acknowledges that the company underestimated the power of friending. “Our mission was organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful,” he says. “I think we probably missed more of the people part of that than we should have.”

Google’s tardy embrace of social networking and its other moves, such as the strict terms it dictates to licensees of its Android operating system, have opened the company up to the kind of criticism it rarely encountered during its days as a mere colossus-in-the-making. Antitrust authorities in the U.S. and Europe are investigating whether Google gives preference to its own content in Internet search results instead of being a neutral arbiter. Privacy watchdog groups are calling Google out on changes to its privacy policies, charging that it has abused its users’ trust. Bloggers now routinely wonder if the company is doing evil, a caustic play on Google’s famous dictum in its 2004 initial public offering prospectus. A recent headline on the technology site Gizmodo hyperbolically summed up the stew of distrust: “Google’s Broken Promise: The End of ‘Don’t Be Evil.’”

Page smiles at the charge. Google, he insists, has not really changed at all. “Our soul is the same,” he says. “What we’re about is using large-scale technology advancements to help people, to make people’s lives better, to make community better. If you look at the river of things we’re doing, like automated cars and things like that, those things are fundamentally about [using technology] to help people. And I think there is still a huge amount of that to be done.”

With Sergey Brin, Page founded Google in 1998 at the age of 25. By any measure, the company is among the most remarkable in the history of Silicon Valley, growing from a research project at Stanford to a multibillion-dollar global behemoth in a little more than a decade. Yet by the time Page took command last April, Google had grown unfocused and unwieldy. A freewheeling atmosphere of invention and curiosity spawned countless unpolished, unsuccessful products. (Take Google Buzz. No, really, take it!) The previous CEO, Eric Schmidt, was spending much of his time on the road, focusing on the company’s mounting problems with antitrust and privacy regulators and dousing controversies such as the interception of home networking data by Google’s roving, camera-equipped Street View cars.

An ongoing discussion among Google’s leaders about refocusing the company around key product lines precipitated Schmidt’s decision to step aside. Now Google’s executive chairman, Schmidt is still the public face of the company at industry conferences and government hearings. Brin, Page’s co-founder, works on futuristic technology products, such as augmented-reality glasses. As CEO, Page handles the day-to-day decisions—and takes the blame when things go wrong. “He’s probably working harder than anyone at Google right now,” says Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of the group that makes the Chrome browser.


Post a Comment

Follow by Email

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More