RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is feeling lucky – he’s the opening speaker at the ninth All Things D conference, a CEO-studded event affiliated with the Wall Street Journal.
Schmidt was chief executive of Google from 2001 until earlier this year, when he moved to the chairman role and co-founder Larry Page became CEO. He’s being interviewed by co-hosts Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg.
Swisher started it off with a fastball: Is your principal job trying to avoid a government investigation a la Microsoft? What are the chances of a serious government investigation?
Schmidt first explained the three-way leadership at Google. Co-founder Sergey Brin’s been working on some special stuff, he’s very focused on security. Larry’s focused on internal matters and Schmidt’s focused on external matters, including government relations.
“We should expect – given the role that Google plays – to be constantly talked to, investigated – not investigated in a formal sense … not just in the U.S. but around the world.”
Mossberg asked about a new platform war that’s underway.
Schmidt said it’s between Google, Apple, Amazon.com and Facebook. Fifth and sixth could be PayPal and Twitter. Apparently Microsoft isn’t even a contender anymore in Schmidt’s eyes.
“These are global companies with reach and economics that 10 years or 20 years ago one company had,” he said.
That company in the past would have been Microsoft or IBM, he said.
Asked why Microsoft isn’t one of Schmidt’s four, he said “Microsoft is not driving the consumer revolution in the minds of the consumers.” Microsoft has done a very good job getting “locked into corporations.”
What about Xbox, Mossberg asked. “It’s not a platform at the computation level” and only a game platform.
Schmidt was more charitable about Facebook, praising its social graph platform. Apple also has a “similar strategy to get this identity link structure of relationships,” something which would be “very useful” to Google.
He also praised Amazon’s success in cloud services that are integrated across e-commerce sites “using modern computer science …. very modern concept of computer science and very aggressive scaling approaches.”
Asked about branching out Google’s business into new services such as music, Schmidt said the company’s new online music service is something consumers would like to have on top of its Android platform.
Mossberg and Schmidt bantered over privacy questions, with Mossberg advocating for a federal privacy law and Schmidt saying that might be okay. He said Google’s already approaching a sort of compromise to limit the retention of personal information to 12 to 18 months.
“You’re in favor a federal law?” Mossberg asked.
“It depends on what the questions are.”
Swisher said Steve Jobs suggested she write more about Google’s privacy practices and told that Android phones are a “probe in your pocket.”
“We don’t take the information that your phone generates about your location and suck into search.”
But later in the interview, after Mossberg pressed him on why Google’s results sometimes are polluted with less-useful links, Schmidt talked about how access to user’s location will make Google’s search results more accurate.
“We know where your IP address is – we can use that as a signal,” he said.
Google also would like to know who users’ friends are – like Facebook does – so it can produce better search results, he said.
“If we had more information about who your friends are … and with your permission … we could compute a better answer because we’ll know more about you,” he said.
Asked about his biggest regret as Google’s chief executive, Schmidt said it’s failing to develop a Facebook-like identity system, despite having written memos about doing so four years ago.
“I clearly knew that I had to do something and I failed to do it,” he said.
Why? “I think I was busy.”
Mossberg noted that Google did try with products such as Buzz that didn’t work out.
“The CEO should take responsibility,” Schmidt said. “I screwed up.”
Schmidt also brought Google employees on stage to demonstrate the company’s new “Wallet” payment system that uses a special chip for wirelessly making credit card transactions from a mobile phone. So far the “NFC” chip is only used in one Android phone.
Schmidt came on stage after a quick appearance by actress Jane Lynch, who was jokingly introduced as acting chief executive of News Corp. (Maybe he’s not so lucky after all …)
A few of the executive decisions she’s planning at News Corp:
“The Daily? Never heard of it … so clearly I’ll be shutting that down.”
Comics page for the Wall Street Journal: “I’m a big fan of ‘Family Circus.'”
Fox News investigation into the “young and fresh faced” cast of Glee, whom she doesn’t believe are Americans.
Lynch said Sarah Palin will appear as a guest on Glee, singing a song Lynch wrote called “Look at Me, I’m Bat**t Crazy.”