Google CEO Eric Schmidt OUT, Larry Page in: Was Schmidt too nice to beat Apple?

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April 13 2010 5:16 PM

Eric Schmidt Is the Nicest Guy in Tech

Is that why Google replaced him with Larry Page?

As part of its fourth-quarter earnings report, Google announced on Thursday that co-founder Larry Page is replacing Eric Schmidt as the company's CEO. In a blog post befitting his nice-guy reputation, Schmidt wrote that he was proud of his past decade as CEO and that he was "certain that the next 10 years under Larry will be even better!"Last year, Farhad Manjoo analyzed whether or not the ex-CEO might have been too nice to keep Google ahead of Apple. His essay is reprinted below.

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Schmidt doesn't hide his grand vision. When he speaks, he comes off as a professor rather than a businessman, a guy who's far less interested in consumer electronics than in big ideas. In October 2008, the week the U.S. economy had ground to a halt and Congress was poised to pass a $700 billion bailout plan, the Google CEO was talking up Google's sprawling renewable-energy stimulus plan, which Schmidt believed could "solve all of our problems at once." He didn't seem the least bit worried that the crashing economy would sour his own company's fortunes (and in fact, Google's revenues barely slipped). Schmidt gives such big-idea talks all the time. He holds forth on the future of information with people in the newspaper industry; on the future of tech innovation with systems administrators; on the future of the country in his numerous chats with Barack Obama. (Schmidt endorsed Obama during the election and now sits on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.)

How will Schmidt's broad-mindedness play out in Google's war with Apple? What sets Schmidt apart from other tech leaders is the same thing that sets Google apart—he has an abiding belief in the power of good engineering and in the idea that open systems will win. Apple's devices are popular, but like Microsoft's Windows empire, the Apple edifice is tied to what Google thinks are unsustainable strategic decisions: the decision to lock down the App Store or to manage every single aspect of the iPhone and iPad interface.

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I've argued that locked-down devices aren't necessarily as doomed as Google and other techies argue. Consumers obviously like the safety and convenience afforded by some tech restrictions, and Apple could continue to dominate the industry even if it never opens up the iPhone. It's telling that other tech leaders have responded to Apple's restrictions with their own strong-arm tactics—see, for instance, how Amazon has been playing hardball with book publishers in order to keep them away from the iPad. That's not how Schmidt operates. I wouldn't expect Google to do anything to restrict its services from iPhone, iPad, or Safari users, and I'd be very surprised if it responded to Apple's anti-Android patent lawsuit with any similar legal maneuvers.

In Google's universe, tactics like those suggest insecurity, and Google is the most confident company in tech. What other company would come out with a plan to solve global warming, the recession, and our long-term national debt in one fell swoop? Schmidt believes his people are smart enough to get around any roadblocks Apple could throw in their way. That's why I think the body-language expert was wrong. When Eric Schmidt slumps his shoulders and says that Steve Jobs is "the best CEO in the world," it's not because he's shaking with fear. He's just being nice.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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