Google really doesn't like Facebook. That was probably the key takeaway from an hour-long riff session between Google's executive chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt and All Thing D executive editors Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at the kick-off to the D9 Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Tuesday evening.
"We've tried very hard to partner with Facebook," Schmidt said, speaking about Google's relationship with a high-tech "Gang of Four" that he said included his own company, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook.
"Traditionally, they've done deals with Microsoft," he elaborated.
Google, or at least Schmidt, is afraid of Facebook. That was the read-between-the-lines takeaway from Schmidt's interview session. Schmidt, replaced as CEO by Google co-founder Larry Page just a few weeks ago, begrudgingly gave credit to Facebook for mastering "identity"—something the Internet hasn't "traditionally done well with."
That was in response to Swisher's comment that, "It seems like Google is chasing Facebook on a lot of things."
Given that Schmidt called identity his "biggest failure" as CEO of Google, Facebook's success at it—spurred by the social network's "identity link structure" combined with simple, powerful features like the "like" button—must really rankle.
Schmidt said he had written a memo about getting something started along those lines at Google four years ago, and then again three years ago, and did nothing about it.
Schmidt also wryly noted, "the industry would benefit from having an alternative" to Facebook. Why? Well, "from Google's perspective" it would help the Mountain View-based company in search.
Schmidt's "Gang of Four" markedly did not include either Microsoft or Intel, the Wintel duopoly that defined personal computing for so many years, or IBM, Oracle, or really any of the old guard of Silicon Valley with the exception of Apple.
Amazon's inclusion hinged on its dominance of the cloud, an area in which Schmidt admitted Google has experienced growing pains.
"We've never had four companies growing at the scale those are, in aggregate," Schmidt said. But it's unlikely any one company in that grouping will acquire one of the other, for antitrust reasons, he added.
Schmidt did mention Twitter and PayPal as possible gate-crashers in the Gang of Four. Hardware, it appears, is for also-rans and dinosaurs—unless, of course, you are Apple.
Schmidt wasn't sparing of Redmond. On Microsoft's non-inclusion in his tech elite-of-the-elite grouping, he said, "Microsoft is not driving the consumer revolution. They've done a very good job of getting [customers] locked in on the corporate side."
So will Google too become a legacy dinosaur that lives off a bloated install base?
"Typically, tech companies eventually become boring and middle aged," Schmidt said. "That's the story of high tech."
Later, he did admit that Microsoft's path has given the software giant "a flywheel that will power Microsoft and what they are doing for many decades."
So what is Schmidt's take on Apple? He sat on Apple's board after all—and that perceived conflict-of-interest sparked a DOJ investigation. Yet he somehow steered clear of either praising or critiquing too loudly the one company that seems to have dodged Schmidt's Law of Middle-Aged Tech Company Boringness.
He did say that Google didn't want to "curate the market" after the fashion of Apple, in response to a question from Mossberg.
Schmidt also touched on privacy, when Swisher mentioned Apple CEO Steve Jobs' jibe that Google Android phones were a "probe in your pocket."
"To be very clear, we don't do that," Schmidt replied.
He also had a nice rejoinder to the location-tracking and privacy brouhahas that have hounded Google (and Apple and Facebook) in recent months. Google's original, core business remains providing a place where people can "do anonymous searches without logging in."
On a personal note, Schmidt is working on a book on foreign policy, wants to work on President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, and had "no comment" on whether Obama offered him the Commerce Secretary job.
Oh, and Google doesn't need to buy Twitter or Groupon to pursue its social strategy, Schmidt allowed, in response to a game effort by Swisher at the interview's close to steal a scoop.
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