The announcement that Google Cofounder Larry Page will become the company’s CEO is a very big deal — and not just for Google.
With Mark Zuckerberg firmly ensconced in the top spot at Facebook, and Page set to take the reins at Google in April, the two most influential companies in the tech industry will be headed by CEOs who launched their careers on products that were designed specifically to take advantage of the power of the World Wide Web.
In starting Facebook and Google, Zuckerberg and Page proved that they understood the Web’s potential for changing the world. Now, the rest of us get to see which one of them can do the best of job of harnessing the Web to develop products that attract users and ultimately generate corporate profits over the long term.
In contemplating how this battle will play out, an examination of how Page and Zuckerberg — or more precisely their respective companies — became the two principal combatants in a fight for tech industry supremacy may be helpful.
Improving the Way We Work and Play
The short answer is that these companies’ initial products embodied the vision that drove Tim Berners-Lee to create the Web, which was to develop a platform that would first reflect the way we work, play and socialize, and then allow us to improve on the ways we do those things.
Google certainly improved our ability to find information with its first product, the search engine, based on an algorithm that Page developed with Google Cofounder Sergey Brin during their days as Stanford graduate students. Lately, Google’s search engine has been criticized for serving up too many links that are irrelevant, outdated or tied to companies that have paid to advertise on the site.
While those critiques are not completely unfounded, Google still gives us faster, easier access to much more information — from book titles in college libraries to newspapers, magazines and videos — than we’ve ever had.
More than 600 million Facebook users undoubtedly would argue that Facebook has improved the way they socialize, and a sizeable percentage of them also like playing the games that are available on the site.
There are, of course, a number of other trendsetting tech companies. I wouldn’t put any of those companies in the same class as Google or Facebook, however, because those companies were founded in the pre-Web era. I question whether their products have had the same impact on our work or social lives that Google and Facebook have had.
Groupon Is a Marketing Triumph
Groupon, the daily deal site founded by the now 30-year-old Andrew Mason, is the company that would come closest to being compared directly with Facebook and Google. However, I have trouble making that comparison, largely because I consider turning a site that offers discount shopping coupons into a business with a potential US$15 billion stock market valuation to be more of a marketing triumph than a technological achievement.
Groupon made headlines by turning down Google’s $6-billion buyout offer late last year. Mason and company may well net more in an IPO that’s expected to take place sometime this year. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to someday see Groupon looked upon as an also-ran in a market flooded with sites connecting users with discounts. In fact, Google already has launched such a venture.
Apple, with a $300 million market cap, is the world’s most valuable technology company, but it too is a different animal than either Google or Facebook. First, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was one of the original Silicon Valley wunderkinds when he teamed with Steve Wozniak to build what was then the revolutionary device known as the Apple PC in the 1970s, long before the general public had even heard of the Internet.
These days, Apple is creating major buzz — and earning that lofty market valuation — with its widely coveted line of iProducts. As popular as those devices are, they are not really designed to connect people.
Apple Promotes Solitary Activities
The first of these devices, the iPod, was built to allow people to carry their personal music libraries wherever they went, listening through headphones and, in effect, shutting themselves off from the outside world. The iPhone and the iPad let users freely link with social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter, but they still are largely devices for fulfilling personal wishes. You might recall that the ability to read books online — a decidedly solitary activity — was the top feature Apple touted when it was preparing the initial iPad launch.
To its credit, Apple has embraced social media, but that’s largely been a reaction to the popularity of Facebook and Twitter, as well as the competition that Google’s Android operating system — which is extremely social media friendly — has presented to the iPlatform.
When looking at the tech industry landscape going forward, we also must consider the unfortunate possibility that Jobs’ health may force him to step away from Apple completely, which could send the company into a tailspin. It was Jobs, after all, who brought Apple out of a prolonged slump when he returned for his second stint as CEO in the late 90s.
No More Adult Supervision
Though it has lost some favor with Wall Street, Google is still an extremely profitable company. It also has $30 billion is cash.
It might appear that Google has an advantage over Facebook with the 38-year-old Page taking over as CEO after spending nearly a decade under the watchful eye of 55-year-old Eric Schmidt, a veteran high-tech exec who previously did stints at places such as Novell and Sun Microsystems.
The not-so-inside joke at Google is that Schmidt was there to provide adult supervision for Page and Brin, and now that they have grown up, Schmidt can fade into the role executive chairman.
Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Zuckerberg continues to run Facebook without any visible signs of seeking help from more experienced industry leaders. That might change at some point, particularly with Goldman Sachs having recently invested close to $1.5 billion dollars in Facebook, and surely wanting to see a sizeable return on that investment.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing the full impact that both Google and Facebook will have on the industry and the rest of the world over the next few years. Regardless of which of these companies end up atop the tech world — or even if some now nonexistent upstart comes along to dethrone them both — there are bound to be exciting things in store for technology users.
TechNewsWorld columnist Sidney Hill has been writing about business and technology trends for more than two decades. In addition to his work as a freelance journalist, he operates an independent marketing communications consulting firm. You can connect with Hill through his website.