Eric Schmidt, the former CEO and current chairman of Google, took the stage at the All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes on Tuesday night, where he was subjected to semi-rigorous questioning and occasional witty banter from the show’s hosts, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. In between the things he wouldn’t talk about (the Commerce Secretary job) and the things he laughed off (his bad jokes about privacy), Schmidt said some interesting things about a number of Google topics, which we have tried to collect and decipher for you below (Note: the words attributed to Schmidt are paraphrases of what he said, not verbatim quotes).
- What Schmidt said: I screwed up on digital identity.
What he really means: Google still doesn’t understand how social works.
It’s nice of Eric to take the blame for missing the boat on the power of social networks and online identity — which Facebook now effectively owns — and that is his duty as the chief executive, since the buck stopped with him. But the truth, as we have argued before, is that Google as a whole has not really figured out the impact of social networks, and that is a far bigger problem than just a single guy at the top. Its +1 offering is a nice try, but the jury is still out on whether it will be a Buzz-like flop or not.
- What Schmidt said: We don’t need to partner with Facebook or buy Twitter, we can get social data in other ways.
What he really means: We will continue scraping whether Facebook likes it or not.
The Facebook-Google blockade over social information is one of the biggest ongoing battles in the social web, and there is no question that it is hurting Google in a serious way, but Schmidt claims to be unconcerned. Gooogle has tried to partner with Facebook to get social data, but Facebook has done deals with Microsoft instead (which also owns a stake in Facebook) and thumbed its nose at the search giant. Google has tried to force Facebook to let users export their contact info, and Facebook basically told the company to take a hike. But Facebook is clearly rattled, since it hired a PR firm to plant nasty stories about Google’s alleged scraping of social data. This one is not over by a long shot.
- What Schmidt said: We have face-recognition technology but haven’t released it.
What he really means: We care about privacy, honest — did you guys hear that over at the Justice Department?
I have no doubt that Google has facial-recognition technology. We are already seeing billboards that can do the “Minority Report” trick of recognizing you and then customizing their content somehow. It’s going to happen. And for a company that is working on cars that drive themselves, backing off on a futuristic — and slightly scary — technology just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Google would do. But given the privacy concerns in Washington, there is no way the company is going to let this one out of the bag until the heat dies down.
- What Schmidt said: We are moving away from links to just giving you information.
What he really means: We are going to keep buying things like ITA and getting into the service business.
The Google chairman said the company is moving further away from just providing search results with links based on PageRank and doing more of what its purchase of ITA — the travel-information service whose controversial acquisition tied Google up in FTC red tape for months — allows it to do, which is to show actual data on a search page rather than linking somewhere else. Instead of having to go to half a dozen sites to check and book flights, the ITA purchase allows Google to show info and let customers book right on a search page. That is hugely powerful, which is why plenty of people didn’t want Google to buy the company. Expect to see more of those kinds of acquisitions in Google’s future, in a variety of different markets and verticals.
- What Schmidt said: The gang of four is Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook.
What he really means: Microsoft is really good at things that we are not good at.
It’s fair to say, as the former Google CEO did with his “gang of four” comment, that Google and Amazon and Apple and Facebook are where the action is right now, in terms of online businesses and consumer-facing web services, social networks, etc. But Microsoft is still a gigantic company with some pretty huge — and very profitable — businesses, including the Office empire. Google has not made as many inroads into the corporate market as it would like to, despite trying hard with Google Apps and other offerings. But it undoubtedly wants to do better — it just doesn’t want Microsoft to think so.
All in all, Schmidt’s talk at D9 was surprisingly candid for a man who still keeps his cards pretty close to his chest. But he still wouldn’t talk about whether he was going to become Commerce Secretary, and why that didn’t happen — maybe he didn’t want to give up the right to keep making those terrible jokes about privacy.