For me, the primary characteristic of Google CEO Larry Page is ambition. I can thank Steven Levy and his book In the Plex for that. In Levy’s insider account of Google we learn about a Larry Page who came to Stanford with ideas so big and bold that his academic advisors referred to them as “outlandish” and “more science fiction than computer science.” Page personally drove home to Levy that he’s surprised people aren’t being more ambitious in this amazing new era because there are unbelievable possibilities that have never existed before. That tells you a lot about the kind of company Page wants to build at Google in the years ahead. He wants to take “moonshots” like Google Books and self-driving cars.
With over $35 billion in cash to invest and an army of the world’s smartest scientists and computer engineers on its payroll, Google is well positioned to chase a lot of those big opportunities. It’s unlikely that competitors such as Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, or Facebook will derail Page’s ambitions. But, something that could wreck Page’s far-reaching plans is a major run-in with the U.S. government.
Such a run-in may be imminent. Google has confirmed that the Federal Trade Commission has launched a probe into Google’s business practices. We’ll hear more about the extent of the FTC’s investigation in the coming weeks and months, but if this turns into a full-blown trial then it could hamper Google from stretching its hand into new fields of human knowledge and progress. If you want to see the kind of effect a government antitrust suit can have, take a look at Charles Cooper’s reflection on similar suits against IBM and Microsoft.
Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and Sergei Brin pose in one of Google’s self-driving cars. Credit: Google
The fact that Google is finally attracting serious attention from government regulators and lawmakers in its home country shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In fact, the bigger surprise that it’s taken the U.S. government this long to get interested. After all, Google has amassed what is arguably the greatest trove of electronic data in human history, including a ton of private information on citizens who have little idea about just how much Google knows. Plus, with Google.com serving as the Internet’s default home page, the company is in an unprecedented position to abuse that power by directing search results toward its own products in favor of its competitors. That search monopoly looks like it will be the focus of the current FTC probe.
Whether or not the current investigation clips Google’s wings, I expect U.S. government intervention into Google’s business practices to be an unavoidable inevitability in this decade. There’s ultimately going to be too much fear over Google’s search monopoly and its data power, and too many opportunities for Senators to grandstand and act like they’re standing up for the little guy.
It’s going to happen and it’s likely going to put a damper on some of Page’s plans, due to either fear of further brush-ups or because of agreements with the government to constrain itself and self-regulate. The bigger question is whether that could inadvertently turn into a good thing for Google. The company has shown itself unable to focus and powerless to enforce quality standards in its products in recent years. Jean-Louis Gassée attributes this to Google’s “Strategy of Everything” saying, “The need to be ‘all services to all people’ exposes the company to sloppiness and to silos, to UI by and for engineers, to ‘featuritis’, to products that don’t interconnect.” Gassee also remarked, “For all Google’s ‘Don’t Be Evil’ motto, the company has now reached a point where the more it excels, and it often does, the more it is perceived as a threat by individuals and governments around the world.”
Page’s ambitious plans to expand Google far beyond search, Internet advertising, and the Web itself could accelerate Google’s “Strategy of Everything,” but would also offer new opportunities to abuse its search power and invite additional government scrutiny. A reigned-in Google could re-focus on its core mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
There’s plenty left to do on that ambititous goal, and a Google that acts in good faith on Internet search and user privacy could still pursue it with all due haste. That’s not as flashy as windmills and self-driving cars, but it could keep Google’s eye on what is still a very big prize.
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