Imagining the Google Future
Top experts help us plot four scenarios that show where the company's geniuses may be leading it -- and, perhaps, all of us.
SAN FRANCISCO (BUSINESS 2.0 MAGAZINE) - We all know that the company Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded a mere eight years ago is one of the new century's most cunning enterprises. If there were any lingering doubts, 2005 erased them. Google's sales jumped an estimated 50 percent to $6 billion, its profits tripled to a projected $1.6 billion, and Wall Street answered with an unprecedented vote of confidence: a $120 billion market cap, a share price soaring above $400, and a price/earnings ratio close to 70.
That's a huge bet on future growth that seems unthinkable during the postbubble period. But in Google (Research)'s case, the exuberance is rational. That's because Brin, Page, and CEO Eric Schmidt cornered online advertising: They've made it precision-targeted and dirt cheap. U.S. companies still devote more ad dollars to the Yellow Pages than to the Internet (which accounts for less than 5 percent of overall ad spending). Yet Americans now spend more than 30 percent of their media-consuming time surfing the Web. When the ad dollars catch up to the trend, a mountain of cash awaits, and Google is positioned like no one else to scoop it up.
Even if Google has to share that payday with rivals like Microsoft (Research) and Yahoo (Research), the company has an edge, with storage space and sheer processing power -- an estimated 150,000 servers and counting -- that will enable it to do just about anything it wants with the Web. And boy, does this company want. It signed up about eight new hires per day in 2005 -- a lot of them from Microsoft, many among the smartest people on the planet at what they do. Google is on track to spend more than $500 million on research and development in 2006, and last year it launched more free products in beta than in any previous year. Name any long-term technology bet you can think of -- genome-tailored drugs, artificial intelligence, the space elevator -- and chances are, there's a team in the Googleplex working on an application.
Which raises the most widely debated question in business: What kind of company will Google become in the coming decades? Will it succumb to hubris and flame out like so many of its predecessors? Or will it grow into an omnipresent, omnipotent force -- not just on Wall Street or the Web, but in society? We put the question to scientists, consultants, former Google employees, and tech visionaries like Ray Kurzweil and Stephen Wolfram. They responded with well-argued, richly detailed, and sometimes scary visions of a Google future. On the following pages, we've compiled four very different scenarios for the company. Each details an extreme, but plausible, outcome. In three of them, Google attains monopolistic power, lording over the media, the Internet, and scientific development itself. In the fourth, Google withers and dies. That may seem unthinkable now, but nobody is immune to arrogant missteps. Not even the smartest business minds of 2005. -- Additional reporting by Paul Kaihla and Erick Schonfeld
Next: Scenario 1: Google is the media