THE FUTURE ACCORDING TO MR Google ; In a wide-ranging interview, Eric Schmidt tells Kamal Ahmed the truth about changes at the top of the company and... [Sunday Telegraph (UK)]
(Sunday Telegraph (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) THE FUTURE ACCORDING TO MR Google ; In a wide-ranging interview, Eric Schmidt tells Kamal Ahmed the truth about changes at the top of the company and his vision of what the world of computing will be like in 50 years' time In the days when Eric Schmidt first starting getting excited by computers the only way he could find directions to the next door town would be by looking at a map. Printed on paper. In a book. The only way he could find out what his friends thought of a restaurant in New York would be by ringing them each individually. And asking them.
As a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Schmidt (born in 1955 in Falls Church, Virginia) grew up with what were known as time- share computers - devices linked by telephone lines that used punch cards to relay information. They were operated at night when the lines were clearer.
"My first computer I encountered in high school was a time-share machine which had approximately 1/100,000th of the computation power of your phone," Schmidt says, pointing at my BlackBerry.
"I think about the things we did back then - we had a rule that you worked all night because they were shared machines. So computing science people grew up as night people. I had a rule that I had to go to bed before the sun came up. So I used to look up the sunrise times because I thought it would be bad karma to be going to bed as dawn was arriving." In an interview to mark today's 50th anniversary edition of The Sunday Telegraph, I ask him to think back to that time and wonder at what has been achieved in the world of computing and the internet. We are all now linked, through billions of transactions every day, by a technology whose significance is only slowly being revealed. Could anyone have envisaged then - in the days when colour television was pretty neat - where we would be now? "It is inconceivable," he says.
We are talking at Davos, the World Economic Forum conference in the Swiss Alps where some of the biggest names in economics and business come together for four days of discussion and deal making, argument and contract signing. It is the last week of January.
Schmidt roves widely - talking about why he thinks a deal is possible with the European Commission on complaints that Google is abusing its dominant position in search (a claim the company robustly denies), why Apple had the initial vision to change technology from a corporate support system to a consumer support system and what the world may look like in 50 years' time ("When one assumes I'll no longer be here," he laughs).
For an hour before our interview, Schmidt, in pale pastel V-neck complete with collar and tie, has been holding a session in Google's private suite of rooms just outside the main conference centre.
Sitting at the centre of a circle of business writers from around the world and technology leaders such as America's Jeff Jarvis, Schmidt covers Google's immediate concerns. Has he really semi- retired following the announcement that Larry Page was to take over as chief executive and he was to become executive chairman? Is the reason he has moved because Google is worried about competition from Facebook? Is Google taking issues of privacy and competition seriously enough? In order he answers: no; completely false; and yes, absolutely.
"[The change in roles] has been misinterpreted and [it is] not well understood what we are doing," Schmidt says, explaining that he wants details of the deal understood for the "historic record".
"This has nothing to do with competitors, that is completely false. This was my proposal. People have never believed that the three of us could run the company as a triumvirate, but [this is] a very, very well-managed business. The three of us will be on all of the big decisions together." Changes at the top of Google are ultimately tactical matters. When he looks ahead a decade or more, Schmidt knows that he is standing on the cusp of the next big shift in technological innovation. Google is a search company. Facebook is a social media company. But Schmidt uses the word "social" more often in his discussion with journalists than "search". Search, he says, is becoming social.
"I am incredibly optimistic about what is going to be possible in the next decade, we have spent our whole career getting to this point," he says. Anyone who thought Google could be starting on the down curve had better reconsider.
In the past seven days, this has been the news flow on Google: On Monday, it was announced that Google's Android smartphone has overtaken Nokia's equivalent to become the market leader in the last quarter of 2010.
On Tuesday, the company announced it had teamed up with some of the world's leading art galleries, including Tate Britain in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and digitally catalogued their collections. Using Street View technology to take images of the pictures which are more detailed than when seen with the naked eye, people will now be able to take virtual tours of the galleries from their living rooms.
On the same day, Google's head of "web spam", Matt Cutts, accused Bing, the search service from archrivals Microsoft, of plagiarising Google's search results and passing them off as their own. Microsoft hit back, saying it monitors over 1,000 "different signals" to build up its search algorithm and Google is one small part of that.
On Wednesday, Google revealed its political strength, stepping into the crisis in Egypt and allowing protesters to circumvent the authority's communications blackout. In a tie-up with Twitter and Say Now, a company that Google owns, the California technology giant set up a "speaktotweet" system to allow people to call a dedicated phone line and leave a message which would then be tweeted.
Also on Wednesday, Google revealed details of its Honeycomb tablet to rival the iPad. At the session at Davos with Schmidt, Google's Marissa Mayer, vice president, product management, and Hugo Barra, director of product management, showed the new Android complete with 3-D imagery which can be tilted to give perspective.
Ms Mayer also said that a new business relationship model, called "claimed places", would allow businesses to take advantage of location-based search and smartphones as part of their advertising. Six million businesses have already signed up, mainly in the US, in what is likely to be a lucrative revenue stream.
Oh, and by the way, Schmidt says, Facebook is not a competitor because the more people use Facebook the more they use Google. "That is a net positive." Turning to the bigger picture, Schmidt collects his thoughts for a moment. "I can only describe this now as a 'wow' moment," he says. "For me this is the beginning of the real revolution in information.
"You need never be lonely, you need never be bored. It is a remarkable change that has not been led by and is not just for the Western elites - it is all-pervasive with a declining cost.
"We are just at the beginning of hearing the voices who are starting to come online. I feel that we have made a material change in the lives of literally billions of people." The convergence of search, location and social is the next big narrative. Schmidt says that people who "opt in" to the system will begin experiencing a much richer relationship with technology, aided by their computerised "personal assistant".
"We still think of search as something you type," Schmidt said. "Perhaps a decade from now, you will think, well, that was interesting, I used to type but now it just knows.
"How does it know? Well, on mobiles we know where you are, down to the nearest foot. You've chosen to log in, with your permission, and it knows where you are and it can provide a personalised service.
"So, here in Davos, where I come every year, it knows where I am and where I was, and it can say, you forgot that you went to that meeting last year and you hated it because I could tell it or it could observe that I was only there for 15 minutes.
"This is a real example. I went to the same meeting last year as this year and we were joking about this - I had forgotten that I hated this meeting and I had forgotten that I had told people that I didn't want to go, so this time I went for five minutes and left, last year it was 15 minutes. So, the computer would say we observe that you have been there for a declining period of time so we suggest that maybe there is something wrong.
"Technically, with your permission, we know where you are, we know your history, we can do data extraction and look at what it tells us." With every new bound forward, Schmidt is careful to insert the phrase - "with your permission". Both Facebook and Google have been burnt when data was shared or farmed without users knowing. Lessons have been learnt.
"I'm sorry to be so pedantic, but I've found if I don't repeat it I get Twittered to death," Schmidt says. "You've got to add the preamble - this is all on the assumption that the customer wants this kind of information. If you want anonymity and you don't want your friends to know what you're doing, that's fine with us." My children are aged 10 and seven. I ask what it will be like for them in 50 years' time.
"A child born today with a life expectancy of 90 will live to 2101," Schmidt says. "Think about it. It is why things like climate change matter. One hundred years is a long time. In 50 years it is reasonable to assume in technology that all of these distinctions between computers and cloud [remote data storage] will have gone away. There will be a ubiquitous computational capability that is just so free and so amazing that people will assume that it is an assistant. It knows who you are, it knows what you do, it makes suggestions, it intuits things for you.
"The computing world is very good at things that we are not. It is very good at memory. It is also very good at doing things involving large numbers - such as 'ask a million people a question'.
"It is also very limited with things like intuition - the human things. A reasonable expectation in 50 years is that computers will do things that they do really well, and humans will do what we do really well.
"And the stupid stuff that we have to do, like remembering things, they can do, and the things that we are really good at - like judgment - they don't really need to do. That division is often lost. People assume that computers will do everything that humans do. Not good. People are different from each other and they are all really different from computers." It's a long way from the punch cards Schmidt used to use because he didn't want the computer confused by his errant typing.
"Fifty years ago people in America were getting very excited by the conversion from black and white television to colour television," Schmidt says. "And computing was about building computers that had 1 megbyte, and that was the size of a small room." He refers to Moore's Law, which describes the long-term trend that computing capability doubles every 18 months to two years.
"Now, the maths of that is interesting," he says. "Doubling every 18 months is roughly a factor of 10 in five years. In 10 years that's a factor of 100. In 25 years it's roughly a factor of 100,000.
"So when you go back and you look at things 15 years or 10 years ago, understand that we were operating in the context of 1,000 times less computation, thinking, networking, data analysis - we just couldn't do it.
"We couldn't do the maps. We couldn't do the searches. We couldn't physically do it. You couldn't get enough hardware. You couldn't get enough power, whereas now it is trivial. So 50 years from now, people will think of us the way we think of the conversion from black and white to colour television. They will think: 'Why couldn't they do these extraordinary things?' " Schmidt thinks back to his first jobs in computers, when it was about servicing the needs of companies.
"When I grew up it was basically about enterprises - IT. Today computer science is really about consumers and information. The rise of Google, the rise of Facebook, the rise of Apple, I think are proof that there is a place for computer science as something that solves problems that people face every day.
"There was only one company that saw that a decade before anybody else and that company is Apple. If you look even through the Nineties - Sun, Microsoft, Novell, Cisco - they were fundamentally infrastructure companies based around corporations. That is where the money was. There was almost no consumer use with the exception of Apple in people's daily lives. The big shift was over 10-15 years and it came with the development of the web.
"The easiest way to think about it is to imagine a non-technical person - a child, say. What is the first thing they would have done with technology? They would have used email. I noticed with my non- technical friends - their first foray into my world was the connection of the email system which occurred in 1991-1992. And then when the internet happened, the internet mail protocols became standardised, everyone else converted and you got this explosion." Google has ridden the waves that have pulsed out from that explosion - sometimes controversially but always pushing at the boundaries. Schmidt reveals that the company has tightened up its procedures on product launches to protect it from the mistakes of the past.
"It is very important that the lawyers are not making the product decisions," he says. "Because the lawyers, on balance, will be more conservative, because that is how lawyers work. So I always say to the product makers, just build the best product you can.
"But it is a reality that when we release products we have to be sensitive to regulatory and privacy issues. So we now do extensive reviews and we're pretty happy with that balance now. The engineers build stuff, the lawyers come in, there are then a series of often very difficult fights inside the company between the different stakeholders.
"It eventually gets resolved, and in the case of Street View [where personal data was inadvertently collected], resolved quite positively. I think that will be the norm. The days when we could just ship a product are gone. We do much, much more than five years ago. It is a permanent change." In a different sense, permanent change could be Google's motto. Schmidt, in his mid-50s, says he will be around at the top of Google for some time yet, still taking on his role as "adult supervisor" of the hyper-product-focused Larry Page, who takes over as chief executive in April.
There will certainly be future rows and battles, but as society faces a new technological age - the age of convergence and convenience - the future power of Google is almost impossible to overestimate.
"I am incredibly optimistic about what is going to be possible in the next decade "It is a reality that we have to be sensitive to regulatory and privacy issues EVER-INCREASING PROFITS 2004 $399m 2006 $3.07bn 2008 $4.2bn 2010 $8.5bn (c) 2011 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.
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