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Google co-founders step away, making Sundar Pichai Alphabet's CEO

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who founded the search giant in a Silicon Valley garage, are handing over the reins.

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Sundar Pichai

James Martin/CNET

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the former Stanford University students who founded Google in a Silicon Valley garage, said Tuesday they are stepping aside as leaders of the internet behemoth they started two decades ago. They're handing the reins to longtime executive Sundar Pichai, who will take over as CEO of Google's parent company Alphabet, in addition to maintaining his current responsibilities as chief executive of the search giant.

The announcement comes four years after Google restructured itself under an umbrella company called Alphabet. As part of the 2015 move, Google's internet businesses, including its search engine and maps app, were separated from more experimental projects like driverless cars. Pichai became CEO of Google, and Page and Brin controlled Alphabet.

Now Pichai, an Indian immigrant who joined the company in 2004, is in charge of it all -- sort of. The co-founders voting power over the company's shares give them majority control. Page and Brin, both 46, said they would stay active as board members but didn't say anything else about how they'll be spending their time in the future.

"With Alphabet now well-established, and Google and the Other Bets operating effectively as independent companies, it's the natural time to simplify our management structure," Page and Brin said in a joint statement.  

"I'm excited about Alphabet and its long term focus on tackling big challenges through technology," Pichai, 47, said in a statement. "I'm looking forward to continuing to work with Larry and Sergey in our new roles." 

Pichai also tweeted that Alphabet had a "timeless mission."

Google didn't make Page, Brin or Pichai available for interviews. 

Pichai's ascension comes as Google and Alphabet face scrutiny from all sides. The company is a target of antitrust probes by both federal and state officials, and European regulators. Google is also in the midst of some of its greatest cultural challenges. A year ago, employees walked off the job to protest management's perceived weakness in handling allegations of sexual misconduct at the search giant. They've complained about Google's contract with the Pentagon to develop artificial intelligence and its proposed work on a search engine for China, known as Project Dragonfly.

As if to highlight the growing conflict over Google's open culture, four former employees said they planned to file charges of unfair labor practices on the same day Brin and Page said they were stepping aside. The former employees, who were fired in November, accused Google of "engaging in protected labor organizing." Google said the employees were fired for violating data security policies, not organizing.

Alphabet board chairman John Hennessy applauded the work Page and Brin did as founders. "It's impossible to overstate Larry and Sergey's contributions over the past 21 years. I'm grateful that they will continue their involvement on the Board."

The change in leadership isn't the first at the company. Page and Brin tapped Eric Schmidt, who formerly ran software maker Novell, to run Google in 2001 and to oversee the company as it went public three years later. Under Schmidt, the company expanded beyond search into mobile phonesinternet transmission and online video.

Brin and Page referenced the earlier leadership change in their letter. "We've never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there's a better way to run the company," the pair wrote.

Wall Street wasn't fazed by the changing of the guard. The company's stock rose a little less than one percent in after-hours training.

Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, said Pichai was the natural choice and had become the public face of the search giant after Page gave up day-to-day management. "He's done a great job at Google even though Google is under tremendous scrutiny," Bajarin said of Pichai's performance. 

Though Page and Brin are Silicon Valley royalty, they have been sharply criticized for receding into the background during the most tumultuous time in the company's history. When leaders from Facebook and Twitter were summoned before Congress last year, Page and Pichai were no-shows. An empty seat with a name reading "Google" sat next to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

As Pichai deals with the company's controversies, he'll also focus the company on AI technology and making its services more helpful and personalized for consumers. "Think of it as building your own individual Google," he told CNET in 2016, before making his debut as CEO at the company's annual developer conference.

Throughout their letter, Brin and Page compared Google and its development to a person's growth. Today, the co-founders said, Google would be 21, ready to leave the roost. "While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long," the pair wrote, "we believe it's time to assume the role of proud parents—offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!"

You can read their letter below:

A letter from Larry and Sergey

Our very first founders' letter in our 2004 S-1 began:

"Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one. Throughout Google's evolution as a privately held company, we have managed Google differently. We have also emphasized an atmosphere of creativity and challenge, which has helped us provide unbiased, accurate and free access to information for those who rely on us around the world."

We believe those central tenets are still true today. The company is not conventional and continues to make ambitious bets on new technology, especially with our Alphabet structure. Creativity and challenge remain as ever-present as before, if not more so, and are increasingly applied to a variety of fields such as machine learning, energy efficiency and transportation. Nonetheless, Google's core service—providing unbiased, accurate, and free access to information—remains at the heart of the company.

However, since we wrote our first founders' letter, the company has evolved and matured. Within Google, there are all the popular consumer services that followed Search, such as Maps, Photos, and YouTube; a global ecosystem of devices powered by our Android and Chrome platforms, including our own Made by Google devices; Google Cloud, including GCP and G Suite; and of course a base of fundamental technologies around machine learning, cloud computing, and software engineering. It's an honor that billions of people have chosen to make these products central to their lives—this is a trust and responsibility that Google will always work to live up to.

And structurally, the company evolved into Alphabet in 2015. As we said in the Alphabet founding letter in 2015: 

"Alphabet is about businesses prospering through strong leaders and independence."

Since we wrote that, hundreds of Phoenix residents are now being driven around in Waymo cars—many without drivers! Wing became the first drone company to make commercial deliveries to consumers in the U.S. And Verily and Calico are doing important work, through a number of great partnerships with other healthcare companies. Some of our "Other Bets" have their own boards with independent members, and outside investors.

Those are just a few examples of technology companies that we have formed within Alphabet, in addition to investment subsidiaries GV and Capital G, which have supported hundreds more.  Together with all of Google's services, this forms a colorful tapestry of bets in technology across a range of industries—all with the goal of helping people and tackling major challenges.

Our second founders' letter began:

"Google was born in 1998. If it were a person, it would have started elementary school late last summer (around August 19), and today it would have just about finished the first grade."

Today, in 2019, if the company was a person, it would be a young adult of 21 and it would be time to leave the roost. While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long, we believe it's time to assume the role of proud parents—offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!

With Alphabet now well-established, and Google and the Other Bets operating effectively as independent companies, it's the natural time to simplify our management structure. We've never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there's a better way to run the company. And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President. Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet. He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet's investment in our portfolio of Other Bets. We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we're passionate about! 

Sundar brings humility and a deep passion for technology to our users, partners and our employees every day. He's worked closely with us for 15 years, through the formation of Alphabet, as CEO of Google, and a member of the Alphabet Board of Directors. He shares our confidence in the value of the Alphabet structure, and the ability it provides us to tackle big challenges through technology. There is no one that we have relied on more since Alphabet was founded, and no better person to lead Google and Alphabet into the future.

We are deeply humbled to have seen a small research project develop into a source of knowledge and empowerment for billions—a bet we made as two Stanford students that led to a multitude of other technology bets. We could not have imagined, back in 1998 when we moved our servers from a dorm room to a garage, the journey that would follow.

CNET's Queenie Wong contributed to this report.

Originally published Dec. 3.
Update, Dec. 4: Adds ages for Page and Brin and details of their voting shares majority.