Larry Page's stamp on Google: More than moon shots

Since Google's co-founder took charge in 2011, he's had the search giant thinking bigger than ever. What to expect at Google I/O this week? Even if it's nothing mind-blowing, it's all according to plan.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
6 min read

Google CEO Larry Page at the I/O developer conference last year. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Under CEO Larry Page, Google has reached new heights. Literally.

Project Loon, now one year in, is edging closer to Google's goal of extending Internet access to remote regions of the world with help from solar-powered, high-altitude balloons sending out Wi-Fi . The search giant also spent $500 million to buy Skybox, which uses low-cost satellites to take high-resolution photos and videos of Earth. Meanwhile, rumor has it that Google is looking to take a minority stake in Richard Branson's space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic.

Since co-founder Page stepped back into the chief executive job in 2011, he's pushed Google to take on radical projects dubbed "moon shots." These sci-fi sounding endeavors represent Google's ambitions to leap forward with technical advances few are willing to work on -- or even capable of dreaming up.

They're also part of Page's vision of having Google thought of as more than just an advertising engine. "A big part of my job is to get people focused on things that are not just incremental," Page said last year.

Google's Project Loon initiative Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Those projects include driverless cars, a plan called Fiber to rev up broadband connection speeds, an effort called Tango to accelerate 3D mapping and machine vision on mobile devices, and more.

Even so, Google watchers don't expect Page and a cast of Google executives to deliver moon shots or use pyrotechnics to steal the show at the Google I/O developer conference this week in San Francisco. Of course, we'll only know for sure on Wednesday if the company has something mind-blowing in store. But though some of the big-think projects will likely get mentions, the agenda suggests that Google will encourage developers to focus on the projects it's creating closer to Earth.

Google is likely to unveil an in-car software dashboard, similar to the control system that Apple introduced in March called CarPlay. The company is also expected to introduce a rival to Apple's recently announced HealthKit app called Google Fit, highlight an Android TV set-top box that offers developers a new platform for their games and other apps, and give stage time to Nest, the smart home appliance maker it acquired in January for $3.2 billion.

Then there's Android Wear, a version of Google's mobile operating system the company launched in March, tailored for wearable devices like smartwatches. CNET reported last week that Samsung will unveil a watch at the event. Motorola and LG are expected to show off wearable devices at the conference as well.

All of the potential announcements mark sensible areas of expansion, but none are particularly original. Several companies already make smartwatches. Apple and Samsung have their own health data initiatives, and startups such as Smart Things and August have solid footing in home automation with their connected devices.

Page already knows how to quell critics. Some of Google's most reliable moneymakers started out as radical ideas. "Investors always worry, 'Oh, you guys are going to spend too much money on these crazy things'," Page said last year. "But those are now the things they're most excited about -- YouTube, Chrome, Android."

Adds Scott Kessler, an equity analyst at S&P Capital IQ: "One can make a very strong argument that over the years Page has been CEO, Google has taken the helm as perhaps the world's most innovative company."

Google and Page declined to comment for this story.

'Wake up and stop dreaming'

Page, who was Google's founding CEO when the company was launched in 1998, served as chief executive from 1998 until 2001. The board replaced him with former Novell CEO Eric Schmidt, the idea being that the company needed a more seasoned technology executive to guide it. Sharing management chores as part of a triumvirate with Page and Google's other co-founder Sergey Brin, Schmidt, a software engineer, nonetheless became the company's public face to the business and investor world when Google went public in 2004.

That bet paid off handsomely and Schmidt turned the company into a financial juggernaut. It has a market capitalization today of more than $381 billion. Its shares have risen 78 percent since Page returned to the top job and closed yesterday at $565.

But as the Mountain View, California-based company has grown, so has the bureaucracy. In 2001, the company had 400 employees; it now employs more than 40,000 worldwide. As Schmidt's CEO tenure approached a decade, the company's growth spawned reports of complaints from some in the rank-and-file, who voiced unhappiness at the giant company's more lumbering pace compared with the go-go days.

"[Schmidt] was a very conventional CEO working for an unconventional company," said Kessler. "And the reason it was unconventional was because of its founders."

Criticism of the company struck a chord. When the New York Times ran a front page story in 2010 calling out Google's increasingly stifling atmosphere, the company reportedly demanded that reporter be taken off the beat. Two months later, Google announced a change at the top to reinvigorate the company. Schmidt stayed on as executive chairman.

The move put Page, now age 41, back in charge. He rejiggered his executive team, refocused projects, and lost his voice, forcing him to stay mum through several quarters of earnings conference calls and the company's annual meeting last year.

But he found his words at Google I/O last year, spending more than half an hour on stage to deliver an impassioned pitch to reduce negativity in the tech industry, and asking developers to help use technology to improve lives.

Join CNET's live coverage of the Google I/O 2014 keynote on Wednesday.

He may take the stage again Wednesday and address the more than 6,000 developers expected to attend. While I/O is pegged as a conference for developers -- Apple and Facebook stage similar gatherings each year -- the goal is more than just to woo coders and designers. "These events establish a vision for broad constituencies," Kessler said. "They have become equivalent to their State of the Union."

And while Page's Google has often projected moon shots as its above-the-fold headline, this year's likely announcements seem more like low-risk bets than Hail Marys. Last year's keynote, which brought us announcements like Google Play Music and new Google Plus photo features, had the same feel: more workmanlike and less audacious.

Though none of this should be surprising. Page has espoused this dualistic philosophy since the moment he conceived of Google. In 2009, Page gave the commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, and described his seminal dream:

"You know what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid dream? And you know how if you don't have a pencil and pad by the bed to write it down, it will be completely gone the next morning? Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23. When I suddenly woke up, I was thinking: What if we could download the whole Web, and just keep the links? And I grabbed a pen and started writing. Sometimes it is important to wake up and stop dreaming. I spent the middle of that night scribbling out the details and convincing myself it would work.

"Soon after, I told my advisor, Terry Winograd, it would take a couple of weeks to download the Web. He nodded knowingly, fully aware it would take much longer, but wise enough to not tell me."

Bringing the company into the categories they should be in are the prudent "wake up and stop dreaming" moments.

Still, though moon shots aren't always on the docket, they are nevertheless why Page was brought back in to lead the company. Before he retook the CEO job, he was instrumental in starting the Google X lab in 2010, which oversees many of the company's out-there projects, like Glass and driverless cars. Brin now devotes his time to overseeing Google X projects.

Perhaps in the almost 20 years since he had that dream, Page's mindset has evolved to becoming more like his master's adviser -- greenlighting crazy ideas from his team, and wise enough not to dissuade them. Or maybe Page is still as naive as he was at 23, and everyone else has learned not to bring him down to earth.