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Growing pains at Google?

The search king has wowed surfers with its story, observes CNET News.com's Charles Cooper. But can it stay on track?

Google reminds me a lot of Microsoft, especially during the early days before Bill Gates became a Davos fixture and started hanging with Bono. The common theme: loads of smart people running around chockablock with big ideas about how technology's going to change the world.

How rich, then, that Google is realizing Microsoft's biggest ambition of putting information at your fingertips.

CEO Eric Schmidt no doubt recognizes the delicious irony. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he competed against Microsoft while at Sun and Novell. But each time he was the underdog. Now the shoe is on the other foot.

History suggests Google's tumble will come as well. But what beats me is when--next month, or next millennium?

Google earlier this week rolled out even more additions to its already impressive inventory of Web offerings and shows no sign of slowing down. If you're Microsoft, this is bad news in bells. And if you're Yahoo, this is time to sit up and take notice that you're next.

Google's newest feature lets people personalize their home pages with different modules that they can drag and drop across their page. The first run of content providers includes the BBC, The New York Times, Slashdot and Wired, but more will follow. Full RSS support will later be included, and advertising will dot the home page. My Yahoo, meet My Google.

Web surfers obviously like what they see from Google, because they keep returning for more. In the roughly nine months that it's been a public company, Google's been knocking the ball out of the park each quarter. The stock price is headed toward the outer rung of Jupiter, and you've got to wonder whether these guys will ever stub their toes.

Excuse the rhetorical exaggeration. But if there's one constant in the technology business it's that the industry is in a state of permanent flux. So history suggests Google's tumble will come as well. But what beats me is when--next month, or next millennium?

Unlike the phony management teams that stunk up the pre-bubble days, Schmidt and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are hard-core techies with a passion about their business. What's more, they have figured out a way to flourish within an odd triumverate that I thought would have fractured long ago.

Microsoft's now trying to make up for lost time with new search features and promises of more when the Longhorn operating system arrives late in 2006. I would never underestimate Microsoft, but Google's biggest enemy remains itself.

At times, the company's appetite has overtaken its good sense--Google's tone-deaf handling of the public uproar over Gmail last year being the most telling example. Privacy advocates flipped out when they learned the company was scanning the content of e-mail messages in order to serve up targeted ads. So much for Google's pretentious-sounding "do no evil" dictum.

Even if it was a tempest in a teapot, management's grudging response reminded me of Intel's painful mismanagement of a famous fiasco in 1994, when a college professor discovered a floating point chip errata in the Pentium. It took several days before Intel realized customers were really outraged by the company's dismissive silence and finally took action.

But the damage was done, and Intel had to work hard to repair its reputation.

Thursday's briefing was a pure PR snow job. When it comes to explaining what's really going on at Google, these guys have a lot to learn.

More recently, Google fell into a of the company's library digitization plans. The fear is that Google's plan would further stamp Anglo domination on global culture by giving short shrift to non-English writing. This is a touchy issue that comes during a delicate juncture in Franco-American relations. The company says Brin recently flew across the Atlantic to meet with French officials. The issue continues to simmer, but let's see how Google handles the pressure.

From a reporter's vantage point, I can tell you that Microsoft has forgotten more about effective PR than Google's ever learned.

To wit: Early Thursday, about a hundred or so reporters got bused in by Google for a full-day briefing. I always treat these orchestrated events with great suspicion, but you have to turn up--just in case. Unfortunately, the best I can say about this gabfest is that lunch was swell.

This was a pure PR snow job, where the assembled scribes were forced to suffer through a mind-numbing procession of content-free presentations for the better part of a day. When it comes to explaining what's really going on at Google, these guys have a lot to learn. I'm not talking about the kissy magazine cover stories PR regularly places. I'm talking about getting the goods.

Microsoft is far savvier about brainwashing the Fourth Estate. And their execs--at least the smarter ones like Steve Ballmer--will occasionally level with us about what's not working.

Chalk it up then to growing pains. One Google insider privately told me the higher-ups don't believe in sharing information they aren't required to by law (especially when it comes to a snoopy press). They're wrong about playing it so close to the vest, but I understand why. Google's on a roll now, but I guarantee that mind-set will get an update after the company's first lousy quarterly report hits the wire.

But these are mere quibbles, and people will forgive Google a lot because they love the story. There is a natural frisson surrounding the company, an upstart that has come so far, so fast. This is indeed an interesting company--arguably the best story to come out of Silicon Valley in the last decade.

How management performs will determine whether Google remains Silicon Valley's best story a decade hence.