It has been quite a year for Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and upon the close of his interview this week with CNET, he ruefully shook his head in acknowledgment that the world is not likely to slow down for the perhaps the most influential company on the Internet.
We had the chance to sit down with Schmidt for a wide-ranging interview on Google's unique array of products and business interests as well as its new role as the No. 1 target for U.S. antitrust regulators, joining a list that has included Oracle, Microsoft, AT&T, and IBM. What follows is a post-mortem on the interview--embedded below--as we discuss how we came up with ideas for questions, ruminate on what Schmidt did (and didn't) answer, and ponder the implication of Schmidt's statements.
Molly: Compared to our CNET Conversations interview with Steve Ballmer, the mood at Google HQ was pretty relaxed. They were happy to let us rearrange the lobby of their press building, get all the free tea and Odwalla juices we wanted, and just wait for Schmidt's arrival. The man himself was relaxed, comfortable, not in a rush, and very well prepared for whatever we could throw at him (and he should be, he's been on quite the press junket lately).
Tom: They did make me use the intern makeup artist, although I'm sure Charlie Wagner, our cameraman, would have done a spectacular job himself.
Molly: (Tom looked great.) As Tom and I were preparing for the interview, we discussed how we felt like we needed to ask him about Google's core business of search, even though it's sometimes hard to remember that search is the engine powering the Google juggernaut of Apps, Mail, Android, contests for building lunar landers, and so on. So, I thought I'd ask him if he feels like Google's won the search wars and can sit back and reap the research from its competitors. Obviously, no CEO is ever going to say he has a commanding, insurmountable lead and everyone else is just playing catch-up (although Steve Ballmer does hint around to that effect), and Schmidt made the very good point that Google's algorithm is still trying to figure out what you mean when you search, as opposed to what you type. So, they're not resting on your laurels, they're just trying to read your mind.
Tom: Schmidt is always very careful to avoid saying words like "dominant" when it comes to discussing Google's, well, dominant share of the search market. That's understandable, there's no sense in attracting even more scrutiny by publicly acknowledging that you have a hammerlock on the market. But I thought he also signaled pretty clearly that Google's search priorities for the next few years will be about getting a handle on this explosion in so-called "real-time Web" content, like Tweets.
Molly: I thought we pushed Schmidt pretty hard on the question of why the company feels it needs a Chrome operating system when Android is not only gaining momentum by the day but also crossing
device categories, powering not only high-profile smartphones but also the new Barnes & Noble Nook and a host of slate tablets. Schmidt insisted that the Chrome operating system was still necessary as a thin-client or even Web-based OS for low-power computers and Netbooks and said developers and hardware manufacturers would make either Android or Chrome OS (or both) into what they needed them to be. Honestly, I thought this was his weakest answer, as I'm still unsure why Google is positioning these two products as separate from each other when the smart phone and Netbook categories are on such a collision course. On the other hand, though, Apple offers Snow Leopard and the iPhone OS (which may yet power their still-rumored tablet) and no one thinks that's odd, so Schmidt may have the last laugh.
Tom: It seemed to me that Schmidt was sort of taking a "spaghetti on the wall" approach to operating system development. They have two different ideas: one traditional operating system, and one Web-based operating system that is basically a souped-up browser. They're going to throw them both out there and see which resonates more with users and developers. Android has a big head start, but if Chrome OS is lightweight enough for mobile devices but sophisticated enough for complex software, it could easily morph into Google's predominant OS.
Molly: Part of Google's "spaghetti" approach includes Google Wave, which I think everyone agrees sounds really neat, except that you don't know what it does. So, we asked him what it does. The explanation didn't really help.
Tom: Nobody gets Google Wave; it's a complex system. I think this is the product of a company run by engineers: they have brilliant ideas but aren't necessarily sure how to implement them. He artfully dodged the question about whether Wave growth will come from outsiders using the technology as opposed to those using Google's implementation, which is probably in the first chapter of Interview Defense 101.
Molly: One of, I think, Google's great temptations must be to use all the information it can gather about you based on that unbelievable search dominance and use it to deliver products that are perfectly tailored to what you want. But Schmidt was very clear that we users would obviously be uncomfortable (to say the least) with product development that overtly used knowledge based on our searches. He said there's a clear division at Google and there's a lot of information that goes untouched. He also said, though, that it's a judgment decision that happens internally, so while you can rest assured knowing they're carefully considering how to use search data, we don't actually know anything about what data they do or don't use. Start your conspiracy engines now.
Tom: Speaking of conspiracy theories, the revised Google Books settlement is likely to come out later today, so it's not all that surprising that Schmidt was reticent on Tuesday to discuss what kinds of changes may be in play. But he continued to downplay the magnitude of the changes that are being negotiated between Google, groups representing authors and publishers, and the Department of Justice. We'll likely see later today just how much Google was forced to change, and whether or not Schmidt's view that little will change is accurate.
Molly: I thought we had another of our most interesting conversations on the subject of evil. Honestly, the "evil" question comes up in just about every interview, and I started to wonder if "evil" was the kind of thing that, in the seemingly amoral world of giant multinational corporations, had a comfortable place in the boardroom. Schmidt acknowledged that conversations about doing evil are slightly more complicated now that Google's reach and services span so many countries and cultures. But he maintains that everyone in the company should feel empowered to object to moves they think might be evil, and that those discussions are as important as ever in Google's boardroom or any other. He did, however, deflect my question about why exactly Google just makes some people feel slightly uncomfortable--fair enough, considering that's a hard question to address. Or maybe he just doesn't agree. Schmidt also assured us and our viewers that the company has an extremely strict policy around search result scrubbing--there is absolutely no tampering with search data allowed. So, don't go thinking that if you get to know a Googler, you'll get unflattering results about yourself removed from the database.
Tom: We wrapped up with one of those questions that calls for a little bit of crystal-ball reading: is it even possible to digitally index all the world's information, as has been Google's long-stated goal? Schmidt had an interesting answer here. Four years ago, Google was confident that it could index the world's information by the year 2300. Now Schmidt is saying that with the explosion in real-time data, it might not even be possible to capture everything. And as Google continues to add new data, will it be unable to store and organize the old data? That how my brain works. See the entire interview on this page or click here to watch it at CNET TV. Watch this space for a full transcript of the interview, and for a chance to submit your questions for the next Conversation.