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Google's Larry Page will try to recapture original energy as CEO

The Internet giant's cerebral co-founder takes control of the company again at a time when it has been perceived as losing its edge to competitors.

January 22, 2011|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times

But Google has also made a number of missteps as it has tried to catch up to Facebook. Facebook, the world's most popular social networking site with half a billion users, surpassed Google as the most visited website in the U.S. in 2010, according to Internet tracker Experian Hitwise. Facebook also serves up the most online display advertising spots in the U.S., according to ComScore.

As Google has grown to more than 24,000 employees, its speed has slowed just as more agile competitors such as Facebook and Twitter Inc. have begun to pounce, threatening its giant share of the online advertising market.

Google has drawn unwanted comparisons to Microsoft Corp., a once-dominant but now largely dormant technology company despite successes with its Xbox video gaming system and Kinect controller. And Google has lost engineers and a string of senior executives, including Sheryl Sandberg, now chief operating officer at Facebook.

Page led the company in its early years but gave up the post in 2001 when he was in his late 20s and the company was still private. He has the traits of an intensely cerebral Silicon Valley alpha entrepreneur — his mind travels at warp speed, making him at times aloof, impatient or dismissive with people who can't keep up, Battelle said. Battelle predicts the public responsibilities of his new leadership role will force him to soften his edges and his image.

Page and Brin, graduate students in computer science at Stanford, started the business in a Silicon Valley garage in 1998. Page had the top job and sought to keep control of the company but the company's investors insisted on a more seasoned leader in Schmidt. In an unusual arrangement, the three men ran Google together. Forbes magazine recently estimated that Page and Brin had a net worth of $15 billion apiece, and Schmidt $5.5 billion.

Battelle recalled that as Google went public in 2004, Page withdrew. He admitted to Battelle that he had not adjusted to his newfound fame and wealth.

"I just want to invent things and get them out in the world," Page told Battelle.

Now Page is aspiring to invent the next chapter in his business career. People inside Google say Page has aspired to be CEO for years.

Wall Street may not be sold on Page's ability to run the $200-billion Internet giant, particularly if Schmidt does not stay on long as executive chairman. Shares of Google fell 2% to $611.83 Friday, reflecting uneasiness among investors who are used to having the company in the hands of a professional manager.

"Schmidt very effectively spearheaded Google to become one of the largest and most innovative technology companies of our times and we expect Larry Page to be an equally effective CEO of Google," said Caris & Co. analyst Sandeep Aggarwal.

Analysts are basing their opinions on Page and Google's track record. In the early days, Page outsmarted more established search engines by focusing on making the Google search experience better than any other. In the years since, he pushed engineers to take risks that led to hot new products such as Gmail and Google Maps.

But he and Brin had grown frustrated as talented engineers with strong entrepreneurial drive left Google to start their own companies or work for fleet-footed competitors such as Facebook, which is run by its 26-year-old founder who also has a strong product vision and technical chops, Mark Zuckerberg.

Now, Page will try to inject some of that old start-up energy and what he has called "healthy disregard for the impossible" into his sprawling company.

Page, who grew up surrounded by computers and stacks of Popular Science from computer scientist parents, has broad ambitions for Google as more of an artificial intelligence company than an Internet search service. He has obsessed with working on things that "move the needle," such as Google's recent experiment with self-driving cars, a subject that has fascinated him since he was a doctoral student.

"I think it is often easier to make progress on mega-ambitious dreams," Page told graduates in a 2009 commencement address at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Michigan. " I know that sounds completely nuts. But, since no one else is crazy enough to do it, you have little competition."

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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