Fortune Exclusive: Larry Page on Google

December 11, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

The press-shy Google CEO talks about mobile computing, his tussles with Apple -- and the future of search.

121211083220-larry-page-google-gallery-verticalFORTUNE -- Last month, Larry Page sat down with Fortune Senior Writer Miguel Helft for a lengthy interview for a forthcoming Fortune magazine article. It was only Page's second wide-ranging conversation with a print publication since becoming CEO of Google in April 2011. The 70-minute discussion covered, among other things, Page's take on the future of search, his plans to integrate Motorola and how his management style has changed since taking the helm of the company. Edited excerpts follow.

Fortune: When you're thinking about the next bet you're going to make, how do you pick?
Larry Page: That's something we've been thinking about a lot. Unfortunately, there's not a perfect science to that. Partly I feel that Google is in uncharted territory in the sense that I don't think there's an example from history I can take and say: "Why don't we just do that?" We're at a pretty big scale. We're doing a lot of different things. We want to be a different kind of company. We'd like to have more of a social component in what we do. We like people to be happy with the products they're using. We like our employees to be happy about working here.

Sorry, back to your main question: Choosing what to do. We want to do things that will motivate the most amazing people in the world to want to work on them. You look at self-driving cars. You know a lot of people die, and there's a lot of wasted labor. The better transportation you have, the more choice in jobs. And that's social good. That's probably an economic good. I like it when we're picking problems like that: big things where technology can have a really big impact. And we're pretty sure we can do it. And whatever the technology investment we need to do that, it's not going to be that huge compared to the payoff.

What else would change [in a world with self-driving cars]? Would we not have streetlights? Would the cities be different? Do you have a vision for what could happen?
It's very hard to predict entirely. I think that, you know, one of the issues we face here is parking. I'm getting quotes [for] the cost for us to build a parking lot structure [of] $40,000 per space. It's all concrete and steel. Do you really want to use all your concrete and steel to build parking lots? It seems pretty stupid. If we have automated cars, or even if we have some fraction of automated cars, we'll save hundreds of millions of dollars on parking, just at Google. When you think about your experience, the car can drop you at the front door to the building you work at and then it goes and parks itself. Whenever you need it, your phone notices that you're walking out of the building, and your car's there immediately by the time you get downstairs.

Let me bring you back to management in the company. One of your big early changes was to organize the company around product groups. Are you satisfied with what it's accomplished. If part of it was about getting faster, have you gotten faster? How do you measure that?
It's my job and my personality never to be satisfied. But in general I've been very happy with the changes that we made. And I think that we have focused the company and that's been very helpful. I've generally been happy with that.

And do you measure the speed at which [you are executing]?
You kind of have a feel for it, but it's hard to measure really accurately. But I think a lot of things have improved. We had a measurement of our rate of how we check in code. We've seen some improvements in that, which I view as a good sign. But I probably put more weight on just an intuitive feel.

Web search is going through a pretty significant transformation with things like the Knowledge Graph, Google Now, mobile. What do you think search should be able to do? Are things that we see today that point us to where it's going to be five, ten years from now?
I've been saying the same thing about search in some sense for ten years or so. The perfect search engine would really understand whatever your need is. It would understand everything in the world deeply, give you back kind of exactly what you need.

I think some of the things we're going to do with shopping are also related to that. In shopping we switched to more of a bid model. Part of that's just to make sure we get the information to better structure it, and we have really accurate information that we could give to you. Because obviously if you're buying something, it is a commercial transaction.

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We've had tremendous focus on really making sure we have very accurate, very structured data about everything. We've been working on maps for seven years now or something, and a lot of that is to get exact data on like what is this street, and what is this business, what is the outline of this building. In order to meet our users' needs, the more accurate, the more detailed, the more structured the data we have, the better. That's why we bought ITA--to make sure we had better structured travel information.

A big part of this is happening as we shift from the desktop to mobile. There's a lot of concern about the prospects for advertising in mobile. How much do you think about monetization of new services?
Obviously we have a big company with a lot of revenue and a lot of people, and so we take our core business, search and advertising and all those things very, very seriously. And they do go through some disruption right now. And I think that's great. That's what's good about the technology industry is that we're building new stuff, new software that really meets people's needs better than the old things. And that's opportunity.

We made our bets really early on on Android. We thought that the mobile experiences really needed a rethink, right? That was correct. It's been very successful. And I think because of that experience and the knowledge that we put into developing Android and our understanding that, we understand that space really well. I think we're in the early stages of monetization. The fact that a phone has a location is really helpful for monetization.

I view a whole bunch of things as additive that you can do on mobile that you couldn't do before. And I think with those things, we're going to make more money than we do now.

I think there's no company you would choose that would be better positioned to transition and innovate in mobile advertising and monetization. We've got all the pieces we need to do that going forward.

In the old world of just desktop search, your main competitors at the time were Yahoo (YHOO) and Microsoft (MSFT). Is the competition now something totally different? Is it Siri? Is it Amazon (AMZN) for commercial queries?
I mean, I don't really think about it that way.

Because you don't think about competition?
Obviously we think about competition to some extent. But I feel my job is mostly getting people not to think about our competition. In general I think there's a tendency for people to think about the things that exist. Our job is to think of the thing you haven't thought of yet that you really need. And by definition, if our competitors knew that thing, they wouldn't tell it to us or anybody else. I think just our strengths, our weaknesses, our opportunities are different than any other company.

I don't know if this is unique at this time in this industry, but there are companies that are clearly competing with each other [Google, Apple (AAPL) and Amazon], with completely different business models.
I actually view that as a shame when you think about it that way. All the big technology companies are big because they did something great. I'd like to see more cooperation on the user side. The Internet was made in universities and it was designed to interoperate. And as we've commercialized it, we've added more of an island-like approach to it, which I think is a somewhat a shame for users.

So in light of that, Apple's still a partner. It's a competitor. You and Steve Jobs were friendly.
At times.

At times. You said that whole thing about Android and them being angry about it, that it was for show.
I didn't say that entirely. I said partly.

[Apple did it] partly for show, to get the troops to rally.
By the way, that's something I try not to do. I don't like to rally my company in that way because I think that if you're looking at somebody else, you're looking at what they do now, and that's not how again you stay two or three steps ahead.

So Apple obviously is a huge distribution partner for some of your services. How is the relationship?
What I was trying to say was I think it would be nice if everybody would get along better and the users didn't suffer as a result of other people's activities. I try to model that. We try pretty hard to make our products be available as widely as we can. That's our philosophy. I think sometimes we're allowed to do that. Sometimes we're not.

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So do you have an ongoing conversation with Apple about these kinds of issues and trying to resolve them?
I mean, obviously we talk to Apple. We have a big search relationship with Apple, and so on, and we talk to them and so on.

For a long time, Google was organized on a 70-20-10 model, with 70 percent of effort going to search and ads, 20 to apps, [and 10 to completely new projects]. Does that still apply?
Yeah. We still think about that. I think we're in a bit of a unique point in the history of Google, where we have a number of things that are kind of in the 20 on the way to the 70. So where would you put Android? It's probably in the 70 in terms of impact -- the monetization is at an early stage.

What [else is] in the 20?
It's question of how you really measure it. I don't think about exactly what we put in the 20, so I can't come up with an example offhand.

Okay. But Google X [which includes self-driving cars and Project Glass, the augmented reality glasses] would definitely be on the 10?
Yeah. My experience is like it sounds kind of funny because I think investors always worry about this. You know, "Oh my God, they're going to spend all their money on self-driving cars." I feel like no matter how hard I try, I can never make the 10 bigger, because it's actually hard to get people to work on stuff that's really ambitious. It's easier to get people working on incremental things.

Because it's their comfort zone?
Yeah.

Google Plus was a big bet.
Is a big bet.

It is a big bet. What's most important to you? Is competitive with Facebook (FB)? Is it about weaving identity across all of Google's products? You've talked about adoption being higher than you expected. What's the measure of success going forward?
I think it's gone pretty well. I'm very happy if users of Plus are happy and the numbers are growing because that means that we're on to something. We've got a huge team actually in this building. If you walk around, you see everyone's excited and running around and working hard on it. I think that they're doing great stuff. They're making it better and better every day. That's how I'm measuring it.

There's [another] part of Google Plus. I think in order to make our products really work well, we need to have a good way of sharing. We had 18 different ways of sharing stuff before we did Plus. Now we have one way that works well, and we're improving.

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One of the first instances of Plus being woven into other Google services was in search. There was a fair amount of criticism. In some cases where somebody is not an active user of Google Plus, you put their [Google Plus profile in search results]. That is not necessarily the best use of that real estate. And some people went as far as saying you were betraying the promise of always giving the best, unbiased search results. What's your reaction to that?
What you should want us to do is to really build amazing products and to really do that with a long-term focus. Just like I mentioned we have to understand apps and we have to understand things you could buy, and we have to understand airline tickets. We have to understand anything you might search for. And people are a big thing you might search for.

And so we think about it somewhat differently. We're going to have people as a first class object in search. We need that to work, and we need to get started on it. If you look at a product, and you say the day it launched, "It's not doing what I think it should do." We say, "Well, yeah. It just launched today." Part of this is you have to interact with it and you have to claim your name and make it work for you. And so I think for me I didn't have any issues around that. I think that people weren't focused on the long-term. And I think again it's important if we're going to do a good job meeting your information needs, we actually need to understand things and we need to understand things pretty deeply. People are a component of that.

Many of your competitors have talked about how you showcase your services in search at their expense. Obviously it's gotten regulators' attention. Should Google have done things differently in any of those areas?
The way we think about it is that our customer is our end-user. People are really trying to get some information and get honest, accurate, well-ranked information from us. That's our job one. I think that there are companies that do various kinds of specialized things, that they're doing a part of what we do. We see the opportunity to build amazing products that are more than any of those parts. So one of my favorite examples I like to give is if you're vacation planning. It would be really nice to have a system that could basically vacation plan for you. It would know your preferences, it would know the weather, it would know the prices of airline tickets, the hotel prices, understand logistics, combine all those things into one experience. And that's kind of how we think about search.

You began by saying "your competitors." I don't think the companies that are complaining about various components of what we do are trying to do that. So again, I don't kind of think about it that way.

I think in general we've tried to be very inclusive of people's data. Obviously when you search in Google you get all kinds of different search engines and travel providers and everything else. We're doing our best to make sure those things are represented well. I think for us our strength comes from working with everybody, but we also need to make sure we're serving our end users with a really great experience and that we provide that detailed information to people. Sometimes those things will be complicated.

There's many areas [of Google] that are working very well. Payments seem to be an area where the uptake is a little slower. Are the challenges there technical or are they [the result of] this ecosystem of partners, banks, payment providers, et cetera?
I guess you're talking about Google Wallet?

Yeah, Wallet.
I think that's an area where we've made really rapid progress actually. If you talk to the users, they rave about it. We'd obviously like to get it to more people if we are allowed to. I'd like to see more cooperation in that area and in many parts of the industry.

Besides Wallet, we're very good at accepting worldwide payments. We have very many small advertisers. We're also getting very good with Play on Android at accepting payments from users in many, many different countries, wireless, carrier billing and all sorts of other forms of payment. We have probably a non-understood set of capabilities there.

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There are some great products out of Motorola, but none of them are your signature Nexus line. Will you partner with Motorola for these sort of signature devices? How will you decide when to partner with them? And despite all your assurances to the other [Android] partners that you're going to be neutral, aren't they going to freak out [when you build a Motorola Nexus]?
First of all, I don't think there's any physical way we could have released a Nexus Motorola device in that sense. I mean, we haven't owned the company long enough.

How will you decide when to do a Motorola Nexus device, and what do you tell Samsung and LG?
I think there's a lot of complexity in that question. Maybe I'll talk more generally about that area.
The right way to think about it is how do we get amazing products into users' hands in the most cost-effective, highest quality way possible and to the most people. That's what we do as a business, and that's what we've done with Android.
Part of the reason why we've done Nexus devices in the past is that we want to build an amazing device that kind of showcases what's possible on Android, gives a way for the programmers to get early builds, does a whole bunch of things that are important. Exactly what we do, which devices we do, what the timing is, how we release the software with them, all those things have been changing.

Every day we kind of evaluate how do we help our partners out the right way, how do we produce amazing innovative devices, and how do we get those out, and how do we get that innovation into the ecosystem and into the hands of as many people as possible, and how do we keep our partners happy. I think we've done a pretty good job of that so far.

How much time do you spend thinking about your own role as a manager? You were a founder, obviously you've managed teams before. But how do you develop those skills? How do you -- do you experience your sense of responsibility differently as a CEO than you had as a founder?
It's really a different level of responsibility. I do spend more day-to-day management time than I did previously. I think that's a good thing. I think I have great advisors. There's a lot of people in our ecosystem and board members and so on who I rely on, and Sergey, as well, and Eric. He's very helpful on a lot of different issues. I think that I've been doing a lot of this stuff for a long time, so it's been pretty smooth in that way. But I think again I'm a little bit in uncharted territory because I think what I'm trying to do is not -- I can't point to another company and say, "I want to do what they're doing." So I'm trying to cause something to happen, and it's not obvious how to make it happen.

As we start up new things, as we're working on new areas, as change needs to happen, I tend to get very deep. Then I make sure I have the right team and the right people are in place, and I'm confident they're doing the right thing. And then I'm gone for a long time. I might be gone for a quarter. Those things vary a lot. But that's the trick -- knowing which things are really going to be impactful.

So is there one thing that keeps you more occupied right now than any other thing?
The thing I'm most occupied with now actually is the overall structural questions. We want Google to be wildly successful. What does Google look like five years from now? What are we doing? Who's doing it? How are we organized? What people do we have? And I think we have some answers to those questions. But I think, like I said, what I'm trying to do is to get a technology company that continues to scale its impact and aspirations in its everyday. We're at a certain scale now, but I don't see any particular reason why we shouldn't be much bigger, more impactful than we are now. So that's what I'm trying to figure out. And I think I have a lot of ideas about how to do that, and gradually, every day we increase our scale a little bit. It's probably incremental in that way. And that's my job, right, is to create shareholder value and create value for the end users.

How long do you see yourself being CEO?
I don't know. It seems impossible to predict. But like I said I'm motivated to make Google into something even more amazing and have a really tremendous positive impact on the world ultimately.

We're still 1 percent to where we should be. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to try to move things along. Not enough people are focused on big change. Part of what I'm trying to do is take Google as a case study and really scale our ambition such that we are able to cause more positive change in the world and more technological change. I have a deep feeling that we are not even close to where we should be.

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About This Author
Miguel Helft
Miguel Helft
Senior Writer, Fortune

Miguel Helft is a San Francisco-based Senior Writer at FORTUNE, where he covers Silicon Valley. He joined FORTUNE in August 2011 following a 5-year stint as a reporter at The New York Times covering companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. His knowledge of Silicon Valley and the tech world runs deep. He worked as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in the late-1980s, and for the past 15 years, he has chronicled major industry events -- from the Microsoft antitrust trial to the dot-com boom and bust - at publications like the Industry Standard, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Born and raised in Argentina, Helft emigrated to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, where he earned a BA in Philosophy and a Master's in Computer Science.


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