The Google Guys: Inside the Brilliant Minds of Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Chapter 12 Thinking Beyond Search The World’s Problems, Real and Fanciful
The sad truth is that excellence makes people nervous.
—Shana Alexander, journalist and author
Larry and Sergey took three years to find someone they trusted to guide their philanthropic organization, Google .org. The wait was worth it. Once again, it’s hard to imagine that they could have found a better person for the job.
Dr. Larry Brilliant is the quintessential Baby Boomer. Born in 1944, he has an M.D. and is a specialist in preventive medicine and public health. He attended Woodstock, the Burning Man festival of its day, and studied under a yogi in India, who encouraged him to start a mission to banish smallpox in that country—which he did, working with the World Health Organization. For a while, back in Northern California, he was Jerry Garcia’s personal physician.
Brilliant says he struggles with the typical Baby Boomer’s restless ambition, but at least he puts it to good use. He’s founder and director of the Seva Foundation, which works to eliminate preventable and curable blindness in countries around the world. He has worked with the Centers for Disease Control on a smallpox bioterrorism response effort. Following up on his role presiding over the last natural case of smallpox in the world, he later worked on a campaign to eliminate polio in developing countries. Most recently, he volunteered in Sri Lanka for tsunami relief. In February 2006 he received a $100,000 TED Prize (part of the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference) for his wish to build a global early warning system that can detect new pandemics or disasters before they get out of control.
Brilliant also has an eclectic background as an executive and board member. He was cofounder of The Well, the first online virtual community in the 1970s. He was also CEO of the broadband company SoftNet Systems Inc. and holds a telecommunications technology patent. Today he serves as a member of the strategic advisory committee for the venture capital firm KPCB, and sits on the boards of the Skoll Foundation, Health Metrics Network, Omidyar Network, Humanity United, and InSTEDD, an organization applying technological tools to improve disaster response.
He says he first heard about Google’s philanthropic arm, then called the Google Foundation, when he was laid up in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka with typhoid fever. “I was mildly delirious, and in order to stay conscious I forced myself to translate every Hindi newspaper I could get, because it was hard, and otherwise I would pass out with typhoid.” In one article, he read about the Google Foundation. It included an e-mail address that people interested in a job with the organization could write to. So he sent the e-mail and asked to learn more about the foundation. He never got a response. But, he says, he may have gotten the e-mail address wrong. “The article was all in Hindi, so I’m not even sure if my e-mail got through.”
But when he returned to the United States, Larry and Sergey found him. It started at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), an organization run by the private, nonprofit Sapling Foundation. Its annual conference attracts luminaries on a par with the World Economic Forum. In March 2006, some TED members encouraged Brilliant to give some talks and meet with people at companies that were part of TED, in order to get some support for his wish. He gave a talk in Woodside, a tony Silicon Valley town populated by venture capitalists and wealthy executives, about his TED wish and his work eradicating smallpox. Unbeknownst to him, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt were in the back of the room. One of them turned to the other and said, “Let’s hire him.” Brilliant is not sure which one.
He then ran into a Google executive who told him, “We were just talking about you as a candidate to run Google.org. We’ve been looking for somebody for several years, we’ve interviewed thousands of people, and we can’t find the right person.” Brilliant says he wasn’t interested at first. He hadn’t reported to a boss for about forty years, and didn’t want to. But at a dinner at Google board member John Doerr’s house, Doerr emphasized that it was an extraordinary opportunity. Brilliant says Doerr told him, “You’ve got to go meet with Larry and Sergey. Just go in, close the door, spend the day with them, and see if you don’t think they’re the most wonderful people in the world.” He did, and they were. Brilliant has become one of the pair’s biggest fans. In February 2006 he became executive director of Google.org. (In early 2009, he turned over control of Google.org to another executive and became Google’s “chief philanthropy evangelist,” more of a lobbyist, organizer, and promoter of Google’s philanthropic ideas.)
Changing the World
Google.org is endowed with three million shares of Google stock, worth over $1 billion. That pales in comparison to one of the biggest private philanthropies, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, of which Bill Gates himself is now co-chair. That foundation was created in 1994 with an endowment of $94 million. But Gates, who just recently started focusing most of his efforts there, has expanded it to over $35 billion. It does extraordinary work in health and education issues, much of it in the developing world. Gates’s mother was a prominent philanthropist with United Way, and he had set an agenda for himself when he was very young: make a fortune as an entrepreneur first, then become a philanthropist. He was true to his word.
The difference with Larry and Sergey, says Brilliant, is that they’re dedicated to making Google the core of philanthropic work at such a young age. “When you’re older and you’ve lost somebody, when you’ve been touched with mortality, had a birth or a near death, seen the futility of material things, you will wax philosophic about the meaning of life and duty and making the morally right decisions,” says Brilliant. “But in young people, my experience has been that that’s rare. That’s what was so impressive about Larry and Sergey. I was double their age and they had thought more deeply about some of the moral issues of technology and business than I had.”
Brilliant has had a strong influence on the organization. Larry and Sergey were deeply interested in his background dealing with disease. After three weeks on the job, Larry came to his office and said they should think about health. They spent a year going through thousands of different proposals that had been submitted to them, from dealing with water crises to the disparity between rich and poor, to women’s genital mutilation in certain countries, to HIV/AIDS.
Notably, Brilliant made his TED wish part of Google.org. One of its initiatives is development of a program to use the power of information technology to create a proactive system that can predict and help prevent infectious diseases, rather than just reacting to them once they’ve spread. The organization studies factors that spread disease, such as climate change, deforestation, rising international travel, and human contact with animals. It focuses on developing countries, and tracks diseases and natural disasters.
Another initiative of which Brilliant is extremely proud is called “Inform and Empower.” Again focused on developing countries, it has as its mission to inform the populations of developing countries of services available to them from their own governments. Too frequently people don’t even know what programs they might be able to tap, and the program is designed to empower them to demand those services, ranging from education to improving water quality to finding a doctor. Sometimes the governments themselves are not aware that the services they’re paying for are not actually being provided. That program also funds nonprofit NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to act as scorekeepers to track who’s getting schools or physicians in their area.
Brilliant says this program can even empower the governments to provide new services. “Some countries are post-Soviet, and many countries in Africa are post-conflict, and these are not necessarily governments that have a long tradition of delivering complex services to huge numbers of people. So we can help, with tools, with computer systems, and then we can help empower communities to know which of these things are important. That’s a really great initiative with Google’s core principles,” he says.
But Larry and Sergey are still the go-to people for approval. They like to analyze the programs and look for practical ways to implement them and measure progress. When Brilliant presented the proposal for the Inform and Empower program to Larry and Sergey, he came armed with several objectives: to improve the ability of governments to render service, to improve the ability of people to find out about those services, and to get a scorekeeper. Larry and Sergey discussed this, and pointed out that the important issue isn’t whether the government or an NGO is keeping score; the important thing is the result. So they said each program should also set a goal—that 80 percent of the people affected should know the quality of the water they drink, the quality of education their kids get, and the quality of the health care they receive. “Their thinking went immediately above the tactics to the results,” says Brilliant. “That’s the way they think. They go to the highest level and they externalize it.”
Brilliant, who is better read than most journalists interviewing him, compares Larry and Sergey’s thinking to that of Immanuel Kant when he wrote philosophical arguments about what actions constituted the greatest good in the world. Kant described the “categorical imperative,” which suggests choosing the good work you do by asking yourself, “What if everybody got this good thing?” Says Brilliant, “The idea is to look to the universality of the good. That’s the way Larry and Sergey think. Their minds are in a different paradigm.”
Another favorite obsession Larry and Sergey share is dealing with climate change. They had started initiatives to explore those problems before Brilliant arrived. Larry is the one who is particularly interested in this issue. In 2007 he gave a talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in which he argued that the scientists should make it a point to look for solutions to global warming and to make sure the public knows about them.
He then decided to show them how to do it. This led to two initiatives: developing utility scale renewable energy that’s cheaper than coal-based power plants, dubbed RE<C; and speeding the development of technology for plug-in hybrid cars, called RechargeIT.
These programs provide grants to, and make investments in, organizations working on these goals. But Google takes it further than that. Some of the things the company spends money on make no sense for a software company. For one, Google has its own renewable energy R&D group, complete with engineers and energy experts to work on technologies such as solar thermal power, wind power, and geothermal energy. Within a few years, Larry wants to build a one-gigawatt plant, enough to power a city the size of San Francisco.
Notably, the types of research Google is focusing on are the ones most likely to produce quick results. Solar thermal power, for example—one of the items Larry touted at the AAAS meeting—consists of using mirrors to focus the sun on vats of water or oil, generating steam to run electrical turbines. Solar electric cells are still too inefficient to convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity on a large scale.
To say the least, it’s an unusual task for a software company to tackle. But that’s Larry for you. In a blog posting, he explained the reasons he felt it was something Google should take on: “Our new initiative isn’t just about Google’s energy needs; we’re seeking to accelerate the pace at which clean energy technologies are developing, so they can rival the economics of coal quickly. We’ve gained expertise in designing and building large-scale, energy-intensive facilities by building data centers that lead the industry in efficiency. We want to apply the same creativity and innovation to the challenge of generating inexpensive renewable electricity at scale. By combining talented technologists, great partners and large investments, we have an opportunity to quickly push this technology forward.”
The philosophy is “hybrid philanthropy,” with Google both funding others and trying to develop the technology itself. “It’s not a tangent,” insists Brilliant. “The independent charge to Google.org is to try to address some of the greatest problems by using the fortune Google has, and this is one of the gravest crises. How could we do less? If all we did was give money, we would be falling short of hybrid philanthropy. For the people who say it doesn’t make sense, I would point out that we do lots of hardware stuff at Google. This company, because of its success, touches on every controversial aspect of life. The darkest and brightest of our species flow through Google.”
And this collaboration between Google.org and Google.com is only going to increase. A big part of the reason Brilliant turned over daily management of Google.org to Megan Smith, Google’s vice president of New Business Development, was to better link Google technologists to Google.orgprograms. In a blog posting announcing the change, Brilliant wrote, “[O]ur greatest impact has come when we’ve attacked problems in ways that make the most of Google’s strengths in technology and information.” Smith will provide that bridge.
This is the serious, altruistic side to Larry and Sergey and their desire to do great things for the world. They also have a more whimsical side, and a side that thinks there’s almost no end to what they can do with their unexpected, extraordinary wealth.
Space Age Ideas
Larry and Sergey like to think big. They pursue their own interests no matter how remote they are from Google—or even this planet. Some are as flighty as space travel; others are as grounded as the DNA that makes them who they are.
Larry and Sergey have a keen interest in space travel. They have even reached an agreement to build a new corporate campus on NASA’s Ames Research Center nearby in Mountain View, with a promise to cooperate with the organization on research projects. There’s no word yet on what those projects may be, but Google has already started working with NASA on some fun mapping projects—providing space enthusiasts with images that simulate virtual flyovers of the moon and Mars—just as Google Maps can do virtual flyovers of your local neighborhood.
In 2008, Sergey made a $5 million investment in a Virginia company called Space Adventures, which plans to buy flights on Russian Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station and sell them to wealthy tourists. Expect Sergey to be on the first tourist flight, scheduled in 2011. He’s no doubt driving his life insurance company apoplectic.
In 2007, Google announced the Google Lunar X Prize, in which Google will award up to $30 million for any projects that successfully land an unmanned rover on the moon and send back a gigabyte of images to earth. Larry and Sergey have also bandied about an idea for a “space elevator,” a serious proposal that some scientists have promoted, in which a cable is tethered from the ground to a counterweight in geosynchronous orbit in space. The idea is that, rather than using rockets to launch payloads into space, the satellites or other items can simply be run up the cable. Part of Schmidt’s job is to keep some of these more fanciful ideas from getting too much publicity.
And then there’s the planned trip to Mars, called Project Virgle. This one was announced on April 1, 2008. It’s described on Google’s Web site: “Earth has issues, and it’s time humanity got started on a Plan B. So, starting in 2014, Virgin founder Richard Branson and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin will be leading hundreds of users on one of the grandest adventures in human history: Project Virgle, the first permanent human colony on Mars.”
Google has a “one-hundred-year plan” for this project and offered to let people participate by submitting thirty-second YouTube videos explaining why they want to live on Mars. Says Sergey, “If you’re chosen you’re going to get to join Larry, Richard and myself on the planet Mars sometime in the next 20 years.1 ”
For Love and Money
On a more serious side, Larry and Sergey have both invested in Silicon Valley’s Tesla Motors, feeding their desire to see cars hit the market without polluting the air (and perhaps their desire to drive a really snazzy zero-emissions sports car). Tesla is building electric-powered convertibles that look like a cross between a Porsche Boxster and a Maserati. The first vehicles, which every wealthy Silicon Valley executive drools over (zero to sixty in four seconds), cost over $100,000. Both Larry and Sergey bought at least one. Later versions will go for $50,000 to $65,000.
Sergey has also combined his love life and interest in science with another Google investment. In May 2007, Google made a $3.9 million investment in 23andMe, a biotech company cofounded by his wife, Anne Wojcicki. Regulatory filings on that investment were the first confirmation that the pair was actually married. 23andMe creates a system that allows individuals to learn about their own genetic makeup, make sense of their genetic information, accelerate research into customized drug delivery systems, and help personalize the field of medicine. One more piece of metadata to add to the list.
It’s just more of the founders’ love of exploring radical ideas. The culture at Google encourages far-out thinking, on the philosophy that one never knows what might turn out to be something really interesting that the founders actually want to pursue.
Google brainstorming includes the purely fanciful. A couple of years ago, venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, on a visit to Google, took a picture of a whiteboard labeled “GOOGLE’S MASTER PLAN,” and posted it on his blog. It appears to be a real outline of Google’s interests—some of them have come to pass or are well within the realm of possibility, including searches for TV, games, reviews, ski conditions, sports, traffic reports, music, comics, and gossip—but other Googlers had added their own graffiti to the whiteboard to suggest other ideas, apparently as another April Fool’s Day joke. Some samples: “Hire rogue scientists” with a link to “Hire Richard Branson.” Other trajectories included “Space Station,” “Space travel,” “Teleportation,” “Orbital mind control,” and “Weather control.” And two of the entries that appear with the grouping of genuine items are a “Google operating system” (presumably for PCs) and an entry simply labeled “Casino.”
Certainly, some unusual ideas have already become Google products. Take Mail Goggles, for example, an idea dreamed up by Google engineer Jon Perlow and introduced within Google Labs in October 2008. The press has labeled it Gmail’s “drunk e-mail protector.” When enabled, it checks to see if you’re really sober enough to send that e-mail to your girlfriend, your boss, or anyone else late on a Friday night, requiring you to solve some simple math problems before it will send your e-mail. It’s active only on late weekend nights.
Some ideas are more practical. Google is working on software that will analyze energy use from “smart meters” in homes, in order to provide people with suggestions on how to cut their energy bills (and to provide another product that dovetails with Google.org). Other projects are merely fanciful. In February 2002, Google added Klingon to the list of languages used for search results.
And rumors of new Google products are rampant. Aside from the Google PC, Google is said to be working on a communications router to compete with Cisco Systems, which will help speed up Internet communications. In February 2008, the stock of struggling CNET Networks, which provides tech news and product reviews, rose 7 percent on rumors that Google was thinking of investing in the company. (So far, it hasn’t happened.) There have even been rumors that Google was interested in buying Sprint and really getting into the cell phone business.
Everyone likes to speculate, but there’s no telling where Larry and Sergey will take their company next. There’s one thing that’s certain: they are going to be breaking rules, pissing people off, and trying to make the world a better place for decades to come. Love them or despise them, everyone must contend with them. They are having greater impacts on the business world and on people’s lifestyles than any other business executives in the world. Their hearts are in the right place, even if their heads are sometimes not.
But then, Larry and Sergey have always been difficult to figure out. Venture capitalist Mike Speiser will attest to that. In early 2000, when Speiser was still an entrepreneur at online ratings site Epinions, he met Larry at a social gathering for entrepreneurs called Round Zero. The conversation turned to politics, and he was taken aback by Larry’s attitude. “I’m all for questioning the current orthodoxy,” says Speiser. “But Larry effortlessly ignored all of the laws and customs of the day. I remember thinking that Silicon Valley is loaded with self-proclaimed Libertarians, but this guy is an anarchist.”
Larry was so unusual, in fact, that he made Speiser uncomfortable. At the time, Speiser had difficulty seeing Google succeeding with Larry as one of the company’s top leaders. But he has since come to appreciate that much of Google’s success is likely a result of Larry’s lack of respect for authority. “My parents taught me that many of the great scientists throughout time succeeded because they ignored conventional wisdom and followed their own instincts. I now realize that entrepreneurship is no different. The people who break the current orthodoxy make others uncomfortable. And they are also the ones who change the world.”
With Google and their sudden wealth at their disposal, Larry and Sergey now have enormous power to make those changes, and they will continue to do so for decades to come. They’re like Harry Potter after he discovered he was a wizard and got his wand. You can expect great things from them.
Afterword to the Paperback Edition
Google: The New Microsoft
Larry and Sergey’s magic wands just got more powerful. In January 2011, the company announced that CEO Eric Schmidt was handing the reins back to the cofounders. Larry Page is now the CEO, and will focus on product development and technology strategy. Sergey Brin will devote his time to “strategic products,” particularly new product development. Schmidt becomes “executive chairman,” an unusual title that has led to a lot of speculation that he will eventually leave the company altogether, but will remain a strategic adviser to the pair.
Why the changes? Nobody knows for sure. But Google has been struggling to be dominant in a few new arenas, social networking in particular, an area the team sees as critical to its future. Interestingly, Sergey’s new devotion to strategic products seems to suggest that he’s taken the most important product development away from Larry. Perhaps it’s a move to make the product development process work faster with better results. It’s hard to say if Schmidt wanted to leave or if Larry and Sergey wanted to regain control. Schmidt has nothing left to prove and walks away with a new, $100 million stock bonus. It will be granted over four years, as long as he remains with the company, indicating that Larry and Sergey want him to stay a while.
The new structure does seem likely to streamline the decision-making process, something Google needs right now. Instead of a three-person team agreeing on major decisions, Larry will focus on the basic products and running the company, while Sergey will focus on getting the company into the most important new areas. That may be the most significant change—getting new products out the door faster, with smaller teams and better coordination.
Larry and Sergey will continue to jump on the latest trends, try to pioneer new products that leverage Google’s strength in the search engine sphere, spend billions of dollars on acquisitions to broaden their reach, and pour millions of dollars into Internet technology in order to catalyze faster growth of the medium.
In fact, despite what its executives may say, Google is no longer just a search company; it’s an Internet software company. Larry and Sergey are on a grand quest to provide software for every device that connects to the Internet. Google is, in short, the Microsoft of the Internet generation.
Despite a popular view that Google isn’t as innovative as it once was, it has already established itself in many fields of technology that are being transformed by the Internet: web browsers, e-mail, online maps, blogging software, online video, mobile phone software, photo editing software, instant messaging, and online productivity tools, to name a few. And it’s just getting started.
In the PC era, the battle came down to Microsoft vs. Apple. Microsoft’s Windows was never quite as good as Apple’s Macs (once Steve Jobs returned to Apple). Jobs’s strategy was to control everything from hardware to software design himself. That made his products more expensive and limited Apple to the top end of the market—the Mercedes of computing. Microsoft’s Bill Gates licensed his software to all PC makers, giving him a much larger mass-market share. A similar scenario is now taking shape in the market for Internet devices, but with Google in Microsoft’s old role.
Google’s Android phone operating system is taking off as Internet connections for smart phones become the hottest trend in electronics. In August 2010, a study by the Nielsen Company showed that Android phone sales have started outpacing every other smart phone operating system. The Blackberry by Research in Motion (RIM) and Apple’s iPhone still hold the number one and two spots respectively, but the Android is catching up. In the second quarter of 2010, according to Nielsen, Android took 27 percent of smart phone sales, up from 6 percent at the end of 2009, while the iPhone took 23 percent, down from 34 percent. BlackBerry got 33 percent of the market, down from 39 percent. Microsoft’s share dropped to 11 percent from 13 percent. The Android clearly has the momentum to take over the competition.
That could change, of course, as Apple and RIM release new designs, but the only phones with cachet are the iPhone and Android. Also, as the iPhone finally migrates to the Verizon network, releasing it from the limitation of only being available to AT&T customers, it could gain new momentum. But Jobs is sticking to his strategy of creating the entire phone himself, which means there is only one manufacturer, while Google is licensing its system to all of the phone makers except Apple.
A recent survey by a mobile-software tools provider called Appcelerator found that while the iPhone is the leader in downloadable applications right now, a majority of mobile phone “apps” developers see a bigger future in Google’s Android mobile phone operating system. Why? The Android system is available on more than sixty devices and several mobile networks, and the applications do not have to be cleared by the man at the top.
Even Apple’s customers are starting to feel that Google is taking the lead in smart phone features. A research firm called Vision Critical surveyed iPhone users to find out what they think their phones lack, and the list of features they came up with—the ability to run on a choice of wireless carriers, the ability to run on a 4G network, an 8 megapixel camera, a larger display, a removable battery, and a physical keyboard—reads like a list of the technology already available on the newest Android phones.
The other hot new trend is the iPad from Apple as standard netbooks, essentially small laptop computers, are a cooling trend. Once again, Steve Jobs has worked his magic to create a new category of computer. That could be trouble for Google and its Chrome operating system, which is targeted at netbooks. Further, an iPad competitor from RIM was scheduled to arrive in the first quarter of 2011, a prospect that drove up the company’s stock by 40 percent from August to December 2010, despite the fact that nobody was sure how well the new device would sell. Google is likely to revamp its own netbook design in order to directly compete with these new tablet computers, probably under Sergey’s leadership. The release of the first Chrome OS devices was delayed by six months to mid-2011, so it will have to play catch-up to Apple. However, that’s a page directly out of Microsoft’s old playbook: keep redesigning until the product is competitive. Microsoft, of course, is also trying to enter this category.
Google is also taking on Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader. After Google’s troubles with publishers over digitizing out-of-print books, it has adopted the strategy of helping publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores compete with Amazon. Jeff Bezos is a hard negotiator and has been pressuring publishers to sell him books at cut-rate prices in order to pass on savings to customers. Google and Apple are both selling e-books on their own, on terms more favorable to publishers, which has decreased the pressure on publishers to accede to Amazon’s demands. Google is also offering independent bookstores the opportunity to sell its e-books on their own Web sites, which could take more market share from Amazon if the independent sellers attract loyal customers to their sites. Of course, it’s still very uncertain how all this will play out.
There’s one important market in which Google is struggling. Larry and Sergey are intensely interested in cracking the social networking market, but have not yet been able to come close to Facebook’s prominent position. In November 2010, Google changed its Terms of Service so that other companies could not access Google’s contact list—which lets users import their Gmail contacts—unless the other company reciprocates. Facebook has so far refused to let its users export their contact lists to Google, although it does have deals allowing both Yahoo and Microsoft’s Hotmail to access Facebook contacts. Both Facebook and Google are trying to integrate social networking with e-mail, instant messaging, games, and other online products, but Google is struggling to come up with a smooth system that pleases its customers. Its projects in this area have been variously called Google Me, +1, and Google Games, and reports say the company is having trouble bringing it all together.
One possible scenario is that Google would use its considerable resources to buy Facebook. So far, that idea has been a nonstarter with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg is not willing to give up control of a company with so much promise for its own IPO and his personal wealth, and he’s enjoying his prestige; Time magazine named him 2010’s Person of the Year.
In the meantime, Google has been investing in other social networking companies. It bought Social Deck, a social gaming company for mobile phones, paid some $200 million for social game maker Slide, and bought a payment platform called Jambool for $70 million to make it easier for customers to pay for social networking games. Additionally, it invested a reported $150 million to $200 million in social gaming company Zynga (the maker of Farmville). A report in businessinsider.com says Sergey championed this deal.
Aside from these big deals, Google has a $100 million venture fund to invest in smaller companies in fields as diverse as online advertising, smart grid technology, biotechnology, and green vehicles. Altogether, Google has bought at least eighty-five companies since its founding, according to a Wikipedia list.1
Larry and Sergey are also trying to use the company’s wealth to push for better development of Internet access technology across the United States. In its role as an industry catalyst, Google announced a contest among cities in the United States with the prize being a free ultra-high speed broadband network. It will be a fiber-based network with speeds up to one gigabit per second, one hundred times the speed most people in the United States have access to. On Google’s blog, the project’s managers noted the real goal of the contest is “to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone.”2 Maybe this initiative will force U.S. phone and cable companies to start investing in decent Internet access for everyone.
Finally, Google TV has been making news lately. It’s an Android-based set-top box technology built directly into new TV sets that will bring together Internet and television programming, computer applications, and digital video recording into one device. The device’s competition, Apple TV, is now starting to gain more traction than Google’s version, although it does not have as many features as Google TV. Google’s product clearly needs refinement. Perhaps this will be made a priority under Sergey’s leadership. One big advantage Google may have is the ability to search for programs online and on the cable networks. Comcast is trying to fend off Google TV with its own alternative, called Xcalibur, and some networks are resisting giving Google access to their programs unless it pays for them. But this is a device that could radically transform the way we use television and force the Internet into sharper competition with TV programming.
Of course, becoming such a powerhouse has placed a lot of attention on Google. Government agencies around the world are scrutinizing its moves for antitrust violations. In early July, 2010, the European Union’s antitrust chief said he was looking “very carefully” at allegations that Google unfairly ranks competitors’ sites lower in search results. The irony here is that one of the main reasons Google became successful in the first place is that among all the major search engines, Google was the only one to refuse to bias its search results. There is no discernible evidence that Larry and Sergey have changed their strategy now. Type any company stock ticker name into Google, for example, and Yahoo Finance appears first. Larry and Sergey have always been adamant that search results must always be unbiased. But competitors complain and regulators, wary of Google’s increasing power, will listen.
Other controversies surrounding Google’s tactics continue unabated. News organizations such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. are still threatening Google with lawsuits for stealing snippets of news from its publications. In addition, Viacom was dealt a setback in its suit against YouTube over copyright infringement when a U.S. court ruled against Viacom in June 2010, but Viacom says it will appeal.
More and more people are also becoming skeptical of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy. That philosophy is being put to its biggest test now as it struggles with the Chinese government over censorship. When hackers broke into Google customers’ e-mail accounts in China in early 2010, Sergey was irate. Saying that the hack targeted Chinese dissidents, he made it clear that he thought the attack had government backing. This event pushed Sergey too far and he announced that Google was no longer willing to censor itself in China. Google moved its operations to Hong Kong, where the laws are more liberal, and stopped censoring its search results. But it has to renew its license to continue doing business in China every year. Google submitted its application on June 30, 2010, the last day it could file, and Chinese officials were slow to approve it, but did so in the end. Google will face tough scrutiny on this from China every year. It would not be surprising to see Google lose its license sometime in the near future.
However, leaving China would be an enormous blow to Google’s future. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has made it clear that he has no problem doing business in China and censoring his company’s search results, and the Chinese search engine Baidu continues to gain market share. If Google drops out of China completely, it will be giving up a huge and growing market. If it compromises, its reputation as a corporation fighting against evil will take a big hit. The battle of wills is going to be intense and important to Google’s future. For Larry and Sergey, it is a constant fight between revenue and principle.
Nevertheless, Google’s momentum will continue to grow along with the challenges it faces. Becoming the new Microsoft may not be the description Larry and Sergey would like to have, but it is inevitable. Years ago when Microsoft’s then-CEO Bill Gates was asked if new developments in technology could make his company obsolete, he scoffed, asserting (with an amazing lack of insight to the rising danger of the Internet) that as long as there were computers in the world, Microsoft’s opportunities would stay strong. Now Larry and Sergey could make a similar claim: As long as the Internet is a powerful force in computing, Google’s prospects—and the controversies it faces—are limitless.