By Seth Weintraub
January 21, 2011

It is safe to say that no one saw this coming, which may mean that there is some truth to Google’s statements.

Every time there is change at the top of a company, customers, vendors, shareholders…just about everyone wants to know what happened.  Often it isn’t good news.  But, buried in yesterday’s management shakeup news, Google’s (GOOG) earnings beat the street.  Year over year growth was up almost 30%.  Outside of Facebook and Apple (GOOG), those results would impress just about anyone.  Contrary to some opinions, shareholders and board members weren’t after Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s head.  There is simply too much good going on vs. the bad.

So why the move?  I hate to say this but the explanation that Google gives makes more sense than any other scenario I’ve heard or could conjure up.  It’s clear that Eric Schmidt likes to go on the road to talk to people about technology.  He’s particularly interested in the disruptive power of technology and has taken an interest in Google Ideas, Google’s Think/Do Tank.

There are also a lot of distractions to Google’s leadership.  Lawsuits are coming in from all directions, Oracle’s over Android being one of the biggest.  There is also anti-competitive pressure from the DOJ and governments worldwide and pressure from anti-privacy groups who are often funded by competitors like Microsoft (MSFT).  These are all distractions from Google’s leadership. Until now all three heads had to deal with all of these pressures, which distract from internal innovation and management.

So Schmidt, in the scenario that Google’s laid out, tackles all of these issues, which leaves Page to run the house.  Of the two founders, Page is the more conservative. It’s also his name on the PageRank algorithm that makes Google’s cash cow search money machine hum.  He was also CEO when Schmidt was brought on for ‘parental supervision’ a decade ago.  Of the two founders on paper, Page would seem to be the better choice.  Some would disagree.

Things are much different now, however.  When Schmidt took over in 2001, Google had a few hundred employees.  Google is now a huge multinational corporation with a presence all over the earth and 25,000 employees. They’ve said Schmidt will continue mentoring Page but many have questioned if Page has the people skills or persona to lead Google.  He’s publicity shy and has tended to stay out of the spotlight.

And what about Sergey Brin?  His title of ‘co-founder’ – which he gets just for breathing – and nondescript job description seem to be the biggest demotion of the three.  Brin has always been interested in new products, his previous title was President Products after all.  If the PR is to be believed, he’ll be focusing on innovation and trying to make Google some new products that can offset the company’s reliance on search advertising.

Is Brin going to be relegated to an Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak-type of role where he just hangs out around town doing PR or is he going to be deeply involved with upcoming products?  Initially, at least, he seems to be involved with Google’s Social project and other non-vaporware initiatives.  The title and far off job makes me wonder, however, if history will relegate him to Paul Allen or the aforementioned Steve Wozniak’s ‘other co-founder’ status.

What’s the market to make of all of this?  It doesn’t appear to be too worried.  Google did beat analysts expectations this quarter, but Google is up 10 points this morning, which doesn’t always happen when a CEO departs unexpectedly.

More details will surely emerge over the coming weeks and months and years.  If Schmidt is being pushed out, he won’t be at Google in a year.  Is Brin still a part of the Google inner circle or is he going to go off and get a Segway and buy a few sports franchises and yachts to keep himself busy (and turn into a patent troll)?

Most importantly, how will Larry Page fare as CEO of one of the biggest technology companies on earth?  All eyes will be on him as he transitions to CEO in April.

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