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On April 3, Google (GOOG) co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Larry Page sat down with Bloomberg Businessweek to discuss his first year at the helm of the technology giant, his plans for the future, and the company’s relationships with its competitors. Excerpts from our forthcoming magazine story:
When you took over as CEO, one of your goals was to take the clear accountability and decision-making of a division like Android and move that out to the rest of the company. How have you done?
I think we have done really well. There are bets that we made many, many years ago—on Android, on Chrome, on YouTube. Those were long-term bets that we made and they’ve been very successful. All of those things have continued to grow like crazy. We made a more recent one, obviously, which is Google Plus, and that’s a long-term bet as well. We’re not even a year into that and that’s going very well, much better than I expected. There are various worries people have, and we’ll address those, but we have a really good start.
I have over 2 million followers now on Google Plus. A number of other people are even ahead of me. And that’s with real engagement. So I’m very happy with the growth of the core Google Plus network. It doesn’t mean tomorrow it’s going to be bigger than any other social network out there. That’s not realistic. But it’s growing faster, I think, than other services have and I’m very happy with that.
Big companies have always needed and cooperated in areas where it made sense. I don’t know that I believe there is some huge, strange change in that.
We were real interested in getting instant messaging to work across networks back in the day, and we worked really hard with AOL (AOL) to do that. You know, integration between Google Talk and AOL Instant Messaging. It ended up being a tremendous amount of technical effort. There were some user benefits generated by it, but I’m not sure it was ultimately worth the effort. I would say that my experience with these things is that they have been somewhat difficult.
Google was once incontrovertibly a search company. But what is Google today?
I think you have—I mean, what does it really mean to be a search company? I mean, even at that time, I think at that time and now, basically our soul is the same. I think what we’re about is we’re about using large-scale kind of technology: technology advancements to help people, to make people’s lives better, to make community better. Obviously, our mission was organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful, and I think we probably missed more of the people part of that than we should have.
In your heart of hearts, do you really feel that getting into social networking has been worth it?
Oh, definitely. One of the things I’m just really excited that we launched is: For the first time you can actually search for a person. You never were able to do that. What I mean by that is, I have this friend, Ben Smith, who works here. That’s not a great name. You know, it’s—
I have some problems with Brad Stone, actually.
Yes, that’s a little bit of a challenged name. But Ben Smith is particularly bad. I guess it’s good if you want to have privacy and it’s bad if you want to have other friends find you. For the first time, we can actually deal with that very well. We can put that Ben Smith with a picture and a search box. Obviously, the search for that will get better over time, but having that ability to put an entity of a person in the search box is really a powerful thing. We have been able to get to there by having Google Plus, by having the social infrastructure we have. That’s super-important.
The Motorola deal hasn’t closed yet, but can you tell more about your plans with that company?
It’s pretty hard for me to say much more about that than I have previously, which is just we’re really excited for the opportunity to arrive. What we see, having these amazing devices in your pocket. Every time I get a new one, it’s like a kid on Christmas. I mean, it’s just totally—my life has changed. It’s kind of like the experience of first using the Internet or using a computer as you get these new phones.
How did patents figure into the Motorola deal?
We actually hold a fair number of patents now ourselves, just as Google. We have never really asserted those against anybody. Obviously, we held a lot of search patents, for example. We have somehow been successful without suing other people over intellectual property.
So for us, the general trend of the industry toward being a lot more litigious somehow has just been—it has been a sad thing. There is a lot of money going to lawyers and things, instead of building great products for users. I think that companies usually get into that when they’re toward the end of their life cycle or they don’t have confidence in their abilities to compete naturally.
Is there an Android tablet you’re happy with?
I really like using my Samsung (005930:KS) tablet. I previously used the Motorola Xoom for a while and liked that. I think that those are great experiences, but they’re going to get a lot better. I think that we’re at the pretty early stages of this.
There was a report that Google might brand its own tablets and sell them directly to consumers online. True?
I can’t really comment on rumors.
Do you worry at all that Google has lost a little bit of the trend-setting and innovative positioning it had in its first decade?
No. No. I don’t worry about that at all. And you know, we’re a much bigger company than we were 10 years ago, so we have more resources to do things.
Pretty much everything we’ve done that’s been successful has been sort of a many, many year kind of effort. Even before we started the company, we worked on it for years when we were at Stanford. These things don’t just kind of snap into being, as much as I would like them to. It takes time.
Obviously we don’t talk fully about our plans because we like to keep what we’re doing pretty close to the vest. But I’m not worried that we’re not being ambitious enough in terms of doing things that are really important for people and different for the world. That’s not a worry I have. I think we’re very focused.
Who are you looking for for guidance these days? I mean, obviously still Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin, but do you have other mentors outside the company? I heard my boss, Mike Bloomberg, is someone you talk to periodically.
Yes. Actually, I was inspired by the bullpens that he’s been running at City Hall, so I have been trying to do some things similar here.
With your seven primary deputies sitting around you?
As companies get big or as any organization gets big, you need the management or the high level of the company talking to each other and you need them to be running their big respective teams or buildings.
The insight I got from Mayor Bloomberg was that it’s maybe more efficient to tell people: “For these hours of the day we’re going to be all together. At these hours of the day, you’re going to be with your team.” You just grab the people you need. It’s much more fluid. It doesn’t have to be scheduled. I’m just trying to get people together for a fixed set of hours in one place.
Apple announced a dividend recently. Did it change your thinking about giving cash back to shareholders as a dividend or a stock buyback?
I think Apple has more cash than we do—
Than everybody, including some governments.
We have nothing to announce at this time.
People have been critical of your values of late. As in: As Google tries to compete with Facebook or Apple, is it sacrificing the contract they established with users 15 years ago?
I would—obviously—say no. Producing the best thing we possibly can for users is our paramount thing. 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.
We would love to have better access to data that’s out there. We find it frustrating that we don’t. It’s the tendency of the Internet to move into a well-guarded state. We’ve pushed pretty hard, for example, around just having contact reciprocity. I mean, our friends at Facebook have imported many, many, many Gmail addresses and exported zero addresses. And they claim that users don’t own that data, which is a totally specious claim. It’s completely unreasonable.
One day you can import all of your Gmail contacts into Facebook and the next day try to export those out and they would not let you do that. It’s clearly for competitive reasons that they do that.
According to the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, when you became CEO you went to Jobs for advice. I know you had your differences at the end around Android, but what did you take from him as a mentor and a friend?
I think the Android differences were actually for show. I had a relationship with Steve. I wouldn’t say I spent a lot of time with him over the years, but I saw him periodically. Curiously enough, actually, he requested that meeting. He sent me an e-mail and said: “Hey, you want to get together and chat?” I said, “Sure, I’ll come over.” And we had a very nice talk. We always did when we had a discussion generally.
He was quite sick. I took it as an honor that he wanted to spend some time with me. I figured he wanted to spend time with his family at that point. He had a lot of interesting insights about how to run a company and that was pretty much what we discussed.
Wait, the fury around Android was for show?
I think that served their interests. For a lot of companies, it’s useful for them to feel like they have an obvious competitor and to rally around that. I personally believe that it’s better to shoot higher. You don’t want to be looking at your competitors. You want to be looking at what’s possible and how to make the world better.