The next Google is — Google?

January 24, 2011

google_timeIt’s a sort of Silicon Valley parlor game played by the tech press and hungry, aspiring would-be entrepreneurs: Who will be the next Google? With a shift at the top of the search giant which restores a founder to the corner office, the next Google may just be Google.

Co-founder Larry Page, now all grown up, is set to return to official corporate leadership after a decade with Eric Schmidt in that role. With college buddy co-founder Sergey Brin, the three formed a power-sharing triumvirate that saw the company go public, dominate search and achieve a market cap of nearly $200 billion.

Page inherits a company that is still larger than life, but which seems a tad more mortal after a few ideas that didn’t quite pan out — like Wave — and a worrisome inability to catch a wave in social media, dominated by Facebook. In one of those internet stories that seems to speak volumes, Facebook went live to little notice just as Google was going public to become the biggest IPO in the tech boom’s second phase.

The history of founder/CEOs making the transition from hot start-up to mature company is decidedly mixed. For every Steve Jobs (Apple) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon), there’s a Steve Case (AOL) and a Jerry Yang (Yahoo).

Mark Zuckerberg has run Facebook without interruption and now controls a company some investors think is already worth $50 billion. At Twitter, the other hot Silicon Valley company du jour, Evan Williams stepped aside to elevate COO Dick Costolo. When the founder of a young company steps out of the CEO office into a strategic role, it’s always about getting serious about money.

We are in the next arc for Google, which got serious about money, and succeeded. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s 2007 remark that Google was a “one trick pony” may have been ill-considered but it is true that the company still derives the vast majority of its earnings from search advertising.

So the ascension of Page telegraphs a re-emphasis on the fundamentals of his prioritization at a time when the business of being Google isn’t a hot-button issue. When Jobs returned to Apple after a dozen years of exile in 1996, he first had to turn around the company’s sagging fortunes.

Page steps up with no such disadvantage. But that doesn’t mean he won’t have to live up to some great expectations.

Few companies have changed the world — and then, having done so, are expected to repeatedly repeat as a matter of basic credibility. When Jeff Jarvis published his book on the company nobody thought the overt Jesus reference in the title, “What Would Google Do?” was even mildly inappropriate.

So is this just a case of a founder deciding it was a matter of birth right to return to his place at the top after a decade of tutelage at the side of a seasoned businessman? Or will we have an “aha!” moment in the months to come, evidence that Google is pursuing a course in a way that would have seemed improbable under Schmidt?

“Larry was the original CEO,” says Wired Senior Writer Steven Levy, whose book on Google, “In The Plex,” is due out in the spring, “and, timing aside, people who know Google well aren’t surprised that he is now back at that role.”

Photo: The February 20, 2006 cover of Time magazine.

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