Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, talks to Shane Richmond about mobile, privacy and how his strategy is different from Apple's.
This week Google released an update to its Android mobile operating system. Known as FroYo, the new operating system makes Android mobile phones up to five times faster and makes it possible to use the phone as a wireless hotspot.
The update, the seventh since Android launched in September 2008, comes just a week after Apple launched the iPhone 4 – the latest version of the mobile phone that kicked-off a touchscreen revolution. The timing of the two launches seems emblematic of the rivalry between the two technology giants but Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman and CEO, is keen to play down the conflict.
"We don't have a plan to beat Apple, that's not how we operate," Schmidt says. "We're trying to do something different than Apple and the good news is that Apple is making that very easy."
"The difference between the Apple model and the Google model is easy to understand – they're completely different. The Google model is completely open. You can basically take the software – it's free – you can modify whatever you want, you can add any kind of app, you can build any kind of business model on top of it and you can add any kind of hardware. The Apple model is the inverse."
Schmidt, who has more than 30-years of experience in the technology industry, has been Google's CEO since 2001. As you'd expect, he's sharp – despite having just stepped off a trans-Atlantic flight – and he's quick to correct the wording of a question if he disagrees with it. Asked how he controls such a vast company as Google he says: "The word 'control' is not such a strong word at Google." Later, asked how Google will react to Apple's iPad, he adds firmly: 'We don't react."
Though Google can seem like a technological octopus, its tentacles scrabbling in every direction, Schmidt's conception of the company is very simple. "Google can be understood as trying to organise the world's information on any device and in any way that we can figure out to do it," he says.
"We've talked about mobile for years and right now it's finally taking off. This is our strategy let's see if it works or not. We like our strategy a lot because it's consistent with our values, which are the openness and the open platform and the web platform."
The stakes are high. This is about more than just selling people a new product, it's about shaping a social change. Within three-to-five years, Schmidt says, we'll be consuming almost all of our information online. We'll do it, he adds, "on devices that are live not static. The characteristics of these devices are that they know who you are, they know where you are, they can play video and they carry memory."
To get a sense of the likely rate of change of the next three-to-five years, think back over the same period. Google has bought YouTube, launched Google Docs, taken leaps forward in mapping and expanded into mobile operating systems with Android and desktop operating systems with Chrome OS.
Initially, Google felt that they needed to build a device to help Android along so they worked with HTC to create the Nexus One handset. Schmidt says: "The idea a year and a half ago was to do the Nexus One to try to move the phone platform hardware business forward. It clearly did. It was so successful, we didn't have to do a second one. We would view that as positive but people criticised us heavily for that. I called up the board and said: 'Ok, it worked. Congratulations – we're stopping'. We like that flexibility, we think that flexibility is characteristic of nimbleness at our scale."
Would they consider a similar partnership to help get Chrome OS – the cutdown operating system designed for lightweight computing – off the ground? Schmidt says: "We've talked about it. We have a reference spec for Chrome OS, we have a couple of hardware partners all lined up and the open source is all out there. It's on schedule and it will happen later this year. Let's see how well those partners do first. My guess is we won't need to. The PC industry is different from the phone industry. The PC industry is used to working with Microsoft, whereas the mobile industry was not used to working with software."
Of course, along the way Google gathers an awful lot of your data. Schmidt says this enables them to deliver better-targeted ads – more lucrative for Google, more relevant and less annoying for you. However, it raises privacy issues, something for which Google has been criticised.
"I think the criticism is fine. I think criticism informs us, it makes us better. It doesn't bother me at all," Schmidt says. However, he acknowledges the problem but says it's a broader issue. "Those concerns are real – I'm not trying to move away from them. The fact of the matter is that if you're online all the time, computers are generating a lot of information about you. This is not a Google decision, this is a societal decision. In Britain, you all allow yourselves to be photographed on every street corner. Where are the riots?"
Google, Schmidt says, is kept in check by its customers and by the competition: "All of our testing indicates that the vast majority of people are perfectly happy with our policy. And this message is the message that nobody wants to hear so let me say it again: the reality is we make decisions based on what the average user tells us and we do check. And the reason that you should trust us is that if we were to violate that trust people would move immediately to someone else. We're very non-sticky so we have a very high interest in maintaining the trust of those users."