Visionaries at Google could learn from Apple

May 05, 2004|By JAY HANCOCK

TWENTY YEARS have passed, but grizzled marketing troops still talk about Apple Computer's Super Bowl XVIII commercial.

In 60 expensive seconds of hubris and hope, it evoked George Orwell's spooky novel, 1984, and insulted International Business Machines, the incumbent computer overlord. A beautiful woman evades pursuing goons, bursts into a roomful of zombies and hurls a sledgehammer through a video screen of Big Brother, freeing the serfs and initiating a new era.

"On Jan. 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh," says the voice-over. "And you'll see why 1984 won't be like Nineteen Eighty-Four."

Google Inc.'s registration to sell public stock is the modern equivalent of Apple's famous ad.

Like Apple of the 1980s, Google proposes to be a hip, iconoclastic, enlightened, good multinational corporation. It will challenge stale wisdom, fight evil and usher an envious corporate America into sunlit pastures.

Good luck, Google, but the odds are against you. Apple had the same dream. These days Apple is just another Standard & Poor's 500 member trying to hit quarterly earnings targets.

Here's Google co-founder Larry Page, writing in the shareholder "Owner's Manual," in the registration statement:

"We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place."

Here's Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in 1983, asking Pepsi executive John Sculley to come work for Apple:

"Are you going to keep selling sugar water to children when you could be changing the world?"

Here's Google's Page, referring to Sergey Brin, his founding partner, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt:

"Eric, Sergey and I intend to operate Google differently, applying the values it has developed as a private company to its future as a public company."

Here's Apple's Jobs, speaking to Playboy in 1985:

"I think Apple has a chance to be the model of a Fortune 500 company in the late '80s and early '90s. ... We are aware that we are doing something different."

Page, 2004: "Google is organized around the ability to attract and leverage the talent of exceptional technologists and business people. We have been lucky to recruit many creative, principled and hardworking stars."

Jobs, 1985: "We attract a different type of person - a person who doesn't want to wait five or 10 years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her, someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe."

Page, 2004: "Don't be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served - as shareholders and in all other ways - by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains."

Jobs, 1985: "Everyone here has the sense that right now is one of those moments when we are influencing the future. Most of the time, we're taking things. Neither you nor I made the clothes we wear; we don't make the food or grow the foods we eat. ... Very rarely do we get a chance to put something back into that pool. I think we have that opportunity now."

Google is making a good stab at being extraordinary.

Its two-class stock structure, which gives disproportionate board control to the founders, should cushion against Wall Street's sharp elbows. Its auction to discourage speculation in new shares will reduce shenanigans. Its admonition to investors to focus on long-term results is commendable.

But a million things can and will go wrong. Top executives could have a falling out. Competitors will bite. Profits might fall, spurring cost-cutting pain. The founders might tire of the rat race and, like so many other engineer/entrepreneurs, cash out their billions and go back to the lab.

Gargantuan corporate size and public ownership carry their own imperatives. At Apple, Sculley fought with Jobs and forced him out, then was axed himself. The stock gyrated, layoffs ensued, Jobs came back and so did Apple. But it's not the outfit it was or wanted to be.

"Google is not a conventional company," says the first line of the "Owner's Manual." "We do not intend it to become one."

Wanna bet?

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