7 Ways Larry Page Is Defining Google’s Future

How new CEO Larry Page will lead the company he co-founded into the future.

7 Ways Larry Page Is Defining Google’s Future
Illustrations by Ron Kurniawan


It’s not Helen of Troy or the assassination of an archduke, but this spelling-bee-worthy 10-cent word also launched a war, the Great Search Engine War of 2011, between Google and Microsoft. Over the past few years, one of Google’s primary technical goals has been to improve its search engine for misspellings of unusual queries. It’s relatively easy for Google to figure out that you mean “Obama” when you type “Onama.” But what about something that people rarely search for — and that they rarely spell correctly when they do? For a search scientist, that’s the beautiful challenge of tarsorrhaphy, a gruesome-sounding surgical procedure.


When Google’s search team figured out how to offer the results it would return for tarsorrhaphy after a user typed in “tarsoraphy,” it was a quiet-but-important upgrade for the company’s most important, and most-taken-for-granted, product. Best of all, it was something that Microsoft’s competing and increasingly lauded search engine, Bing, couldn’t do.

“But then we noticed something very puzzling,” says Amit Singhal, the jovial head of Google’s search-ranking team. Just a few weeks later, Bing seemingly had the same breakthrough with the same word:

It offered the identical top result as Google for “tarsoraphy.” Over the following months, Singhal’s team saw a pattern. “We’d log an improvement,” he says when we meet in a pastel-colored conference room on the second story of Building 43, central command of the Googleplex, “and a few weeks later, our best result would start showing up on Bing.”


Singhal authorized what’s now known, in the blogosphere at least, as the “Bing sting,” an algorithmic bit of cloak and dagger. Google engineers manually inserted meaningless results for about 100 nonsensical queries (things like “hiybbprqag” and “indoswiftjobinproduction”) into their own search results. Then the engineers tested those terms in the search tool bar in Microsoft’s search engine. A few weeks later, some of Google’s fake search results began to show up on Bing. “I went from surprised to floored to infuriated,” Singhal says, growing visibly angry in the retelling. As he viewed it, Microsoft had essentially stolen Google’s best efforts. “This was unethical.”

Devilishly, Singhal and his team set a trap, giving the scoop to blogger and search-engine guru Danny Sullivan to run on the day of a panel discussion featuring Bing and Google. It became the biggest news in tech, fanned by Microsoft’s defense that Google’s links are only one “signal” among many web patterns that it considers for its results. The kerfuffle just happened to drown out chatter (albeit briefly) about Google’s own struggles to weed out spammers.

The event was a PR masterstroke from a company that’s typically muted in criticizing rivals and responding to criticism. Coincidentally, it came less than two weeks after the company announced that cofounder Larry Page would become CEO on April 4th. Although Singhal insists that the sting was the search team’s idea (he will admit that Page knew about it), the high-profile dig seems to exhibit all the hallmarks of the new CEO’s approach to business. It was a creative solution to a sticky problem, it was rooted in data, it was ambitious — and it was prankish to boot.


The company line on Page’s ascension is that it does not mark any effort to “fix something” at Google. After all, the company reported stellar earnings the day it announced that Page would replace Eric Schmidt. It generated more than $29 billion in revenue in 2010 and 24% annual growth. Page has been part of what has been an unusual but effective ruling troika with Schmidt and fellow cofounder, Sergey Brin.

And yet Page is becoming CEO at a crucial inflection point in Google’s history. The company is beset by rivals everywhere — Apple and Facebook, both of which are closing off chunks of Internet activity beyond Google’s reach; Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, and others that compete fiercely against it in multiple markets; and even the U.S., the EU, and other governments that want to curtail Google’s ambition. Lately, Google has had more and more public whiffs (see Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google TV).

It’s true that Page is not stepping into a dire situation as Steve Jobs did at Apple in 1997. Page doesn’t need to be a turnaround artist. Yet he has to do something potentially harder: make changes to a winning formula in the face of intense scrutiny, when momentum appears to be against him. To borrow a sports aphorism, winning your first championship is easy compared with trying to repeat.


To outsiders, Page might seem an odd choice to be CEO. He’s personally reserved, unabashedly geeky, and said to be introverted. We won’t be seeing him keynoting A-list conferences with grand vision statements or sitting down for intimate conversations with the press (Google declined to make him available for this article). But after talking to high-level Google executives who work closely with Page, as well as ex-Googlers and other outside observers, a picture begins to emerge of how the search company will change under him. Here’s our seven-part guide to the Google of today — and tomorrow.

1 A Little Top-Down Leadership Goes a Long Way

Every few months, an unmarked delivery truck rolls onto the Google campus and pulls up to Building 44, home to the team behind the Android mobile operating system. A couple dozen giddy engineers gather on the lawn to greet the van. As its cargo door rolls up, they use their company-provided Nexus One smartphones to photograph Android’s next good-luck charm: an enormous plastic sculpture of a dessert. The first such creation, an SUV — size frosted cupcake, was installed outside Building 44 in the spring of 2009 to celebrate the release of Android 1.5 (code name: “Cupcake”). Since then, the cupcake has been joined by a doughnut, an éclair, a bowl of frozen yogurt, and a 10-foot-tall gingerbread man. By the time you read this, a massive honeycomb may have joined the sweets brigade, each confection marking, in alphabetical order, a major milestone in Google’s mobile-computing business.


One could chalk up the sweet-tooth sculptures as quintessentially Googley — huge, quirky, and indulgent of employees’ whims. Yet the fun-loving facade masks a quiet, surprising transformation within the company. For much of its early life, Google reveled in its bottom-up culture. The governing philosophy was “Let’s hire lots of really smart people and let them do whatever they want,” says Brian Kennish, a Google engineer from 2003 to late 2010. Employees — especially engineers — were given unparalleled leeway in deciding what they wanted to work on and encouraged to use 20% of their time to come up with new ideas.

The archetypal product of this era was Gmail, which was born when engineer Paul Buchheit hacked it up in a single day in the summer of 2001. He showed the prototype to his colleagues, and when they expressed interest, Buchheit pulled other promising engineers onto his team. This kind of thing happened time and again at Google; among other products conceived deep within the company’s ranks were Google News, search suggestions, and AdSense, the contextual advertising system that accounted for nearly $9 billion in revenue in 2010.

Kennish, echoing several other former Googlers, adds, “This system worked really well until the company reached about 10,000 workers. After that, things started to break down.” (Google now has 24,000 employees and plans to hire another 6,000 in 2011.)


Android represents a new order, one that Page, who has long played a role in product strategy, will accelerate. “We don’t believe in ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom,’ planting seeds randomly all over and harvesting whatever pops up,” says Alan Eustace, Google’s head of engineering, in what can only be called a repudiation of the still widely held belief about how Google operates.

Page and Brin pushed Google into mobile, buying Android when the project was an eight-person startup in 2005. (Schmidt later joked that they didn’t tell him about it until after the deal.) At the time, Google’s mobile strategy was a hodgepodge effort to install its apps on lots of different mobile phones. Page realized that game would never scale. Eustace says it would have required “5,000 people, each one trying to port apps to all the different phones.” For Google to truly benefit from the transition to mobile phones, it would need to shoot for something bigger. Page gave Andy Rubin, Android’s indomitable chief, the resources to run the division as an autonomous unit. Their ambition helped Google settle on a course to release an entire operating system, rather than a single phone. What’s more, Google made Android free and allowed phone manufacturers and carriers to tinker with the software.

Critics carp that this strategy hurts Android’s usability: Android devices get gummed up with useless additions and inconsistent designs and hardware that make for a wide range in quality between various Android models. All this is true, but it misses the point. Android isn’t about getting lots of people to use Google phones. The mission is to get lots of people to use smartphones and to make sure those smartphones run slick, fast, well-integrated Google products that serve up ads. Google is greedy in its quest for ubiquity, but surprisingly generous in not insisting, as, say, Apple does, on wetting its beak at each possible transaction.


Android’s earliest phones were panned, but with each new version, it has come closer to matching the panache of the iPhone. Its newest incarnations offer several features — including an almost magical capacity to decipher speech commands — that Apple’s devices can’t match.

Indeed, by some measures, Android has already surpassed Steve Jobs’s iPhone. According to comScore, Android’s smartphone market share now lags only Research in Motion’s BlackBerry, and Android’s share is growing faster than that of all of its competitors, including Apple. Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, estimates that by 2012, there will be more than 130 million Android users around the world. Those teeming hordes will generate more than $1 billion in ad revenue for Google.

Android, then, is as much a marvel of management as it is of engineering. “It wasn’t that Larry handed down his vision on stone tablets,” Eustace says. (In other words, he’s not Steve.) But Page had the founding idea that “what was necessary was an ecosystem,” and Android wouldn’t be where it is today if he hadn’t pushed for Google to do something more ambitious.


Page has done this elsewhere. Google’s recent success with YouTube in the face of an unrelenting stream of criticism can be chalked up to a similar management tactic: Page empowered YouTube CEO Salar Kamangar in much the same way he has Android’s Rubin. And YouTube, operating as an autonomous unit, has begun to flourish (see “Blown Away,” February).

As Page takes over, he’ll still find product seedlings everywhere. Google’s product lineup is replete with services that offer overlapping, needlessly duplicative functionality. Android’s triumph should serve as a sweet reminder of the value in imposing just enough discipline before letting the kids chase the ice-cream truck.

2 Spur On Your Frenemies


Two years ago, Google sent a camera crew to Times Square, in New York, and asked passersby a simple question: What is a web browser? “A browser’s a search engine,” said one guy. Another respondent was pretty sure that “it’s what I search through — like, to find things.” When asked which browser they use, most people said Google, while a few renegades stuck to Yahoo and AOL. None of these, of course, are browsers.

It’s a funny YouTube video, but when your company makes nearly all its money through stuff people do using a web browser, you’re laughing only to keep from crying. For many years the dominant browser, Internet Explorer, was left in a state of buggy disrepair by its creator, which just happened to be one of Google’s main rivals. If people don’t even know what a browser is, how would they ever know to ask for something better?

So if you’ve ever wondered why Google needed its own web browser, called Chrome, here’s why: It needed Chrome to goad Microsoft, Apple, and other browser makers into reigniting innovation in what had become a moribund market. Everyone’s efforts collectively improve the web as a whole, which is good for Google and its ad business. Even if its rivals merely copied Chrome’s advancements — superfast, stable, and, thus far, impossible to hack — Google saw that it could achieve its larger goals. About 10% of web surfers now use Chrome, which is respectable, but not as important as pushing Microsoft to retire the decrepit IE 6 browser in favor of new versions with a string of great improvements.


Expect Page to launch even more initiatives that may seem futile when considered alone but that are, in fact, designed to wake up drowsy competitors. Think about such “puzzling” Google moves as releasing its own branded phones — the Nexus One and Nexus S — and competing against the handset makers and carriers that it’s supposed to be courting. Or about Google’s initiative to wire America with fiber-optic lines, as its plan to roll out superfast Internet to several cities suggests. Google really wants Verizon and others to pick up the pace. And when those rivals do, Google will benefit from the innovations that result.

3 When in Doubt, Check the Data

Deciding questions by data is to Google what eye-catching design is to Apple, or what global supply-chain management is to Walmart. It forms the spine of every major decision, and nearly every minor one. Data’s preeminence in Google’s culture helps prevent anyone at the company from pulling rank. It also wards off resistance to change. This will only become more important as Page takes over as the top decision maker at a company whose core search algorithm, PageRank, is named for him.


One telling example of how data work as an effective check against defending the status quo: Within Sean Knapp’s first few months at Google back in 2004, he came up with what he confesses was a totally boneheaded idea. “Why don’t we put five ads on the top of the search-results page?” Back then, Google ran no more than two. Knapp knew that showing any more ads would alienate some share of web searchers; at the same time, he wondered if it would generate enough revenue to offset the reduced usage. Knapp and a product manager approached Marissa Mayer, then Google’s user-experience chief, with this puzzle: Was it possible that Google was running too few ads? Mayer and other execs were intrigued. After all, if there were a “definitive” answer for how many ads to run at the top of the search page, shouldn’t Google find out what it was? (One gets the sense that Googlers know exactly how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.)

So Mayer approved an “experiment” in which for several months about one of every 10,000 search requests would return a page with more than two ads at the top. As Mayer had suspected, users seemed to shun pages plastered with five ads. But the test also proved that people would tolerate more than two ads, and Google now runs up to three ads at the top of its pages. “No idea is a bad idea until the data prove so,” Knapp says, repeating what is likely the company’s second-most-popular mantra after “Don’t be evil.”

Even Page has proved willing to reverse himself if the numbers don’t bear him out. “Larry would wander around the engineers and he would see a product being developed, and sometimes he would say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that,’ ” recalls Douglas Merrill, who served as Google’s chief information officer until 2008. “But the engineers would get some data to back up their idea, and the amazing thing was that Larry was fine to be wrong. As long as the data supported them, he was okay with it. And that was such an incredibly morale-boosting interaction for engineers.”


Google’s devotion to data isn’t always an asset (as we’ll explore momentarily), but there’s likely no other way for the company to conceive of itself because that’s how Page operates. “I was talking to Larry on Saturday,” says Nikesh Arora, Google’s chief business officer, when we sit down to talk the following Tuesday. “I told him that I’d gotten back from nine cities in 12 days — Munich, Copenhagen, Davos, Zurich, New Delhi, Bombay, London, San Francisco. There’s a silence for five seconds. And then he’s like, ‘That’s only eight.’ “

4 When in Creative Mode, Don’t Start With Data

There is a dark side to Google’s data-centric approach. “When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems,” wrote Douglas Bowman, Google’s first lead designer, on the occasion of his 2009 resignation. “Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data… . And those data eventually become a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.”

As Google grows into more arenas where engineering alone can’t carry the day, most notably in social and handheld interfaces, Page will have to tweak this data-driven mind-set to embrace more creative types if the company is to thrive. Google has never invested heavily in hiring classically trained designers, and insiders say that due to a constant shortage of creative staff, engineers sometimes decide the look of their own products.

Page’s own design sense, according to people who’ve worked with him, is in tune with Google’s once-celebrated spare search-engine interface, and he reportedly can be flummoxed by more-sophisticated, subjective design decisions. “Once we were thinking of doing Google Kids,” says Joe Sriver, the company’s first user-interface designer who now runs a startup called DoApp. As part of the mock-up for the site, Sriver added a clip-art dinosaur graphic on the search-query page. “That seemed to catch Larry’s eye,” Sriver says. “He spent the whole meeting looking at the dinosaur and kind of giggling. He wasn’t really looking at the design of it.” Google Kids was never launched.

And yet, despite Page’s personal inclinations, there are signs that Google is pushing itself to transcend its design deficiencies. Matias Duarte joined the company’s Android team last year from Palm, where he was lauded for creating the well-regarded user interface for its mobile operating system called WebOS. Duarte admits that since signing on,he has come to rely on data as a tool in the design process — but not, he insists, as a crutch. Whereas the look and feel of Apple’s software and hardware are kept secret and revealed to just a few people, Duarte’s designs are shared widely inside Google and with other partners and testers. (Google routinely tests products this way before sharing them with the world, calling the process “dogfooding,” as in the company eats its own dog food. Or, in Duarte’s case, “Droid-fooding.”)

Duarte points out that this openness has led to novel insights into what users want. Honeycomb, Google’s new tablet-specific version of Android, includes an eye-catching interface to show people all the recent applications they’ve been using. It’s a feature that the iPad sorely misses — and it came about only because of extensive statistical analysis of usage patterns. The lesson: Google can succeed in more creative pursuits if it pushes the limits of its data-centric culture but still relies on that culture to enhance creative solutions. “We don’t design by committee; we don’t design by focus group,” Duarte says. “But we do verify everything we’re trying to do with our design with stringent, large-scale user testing.”

Google historically had a spirit of joy about it, from its clever Doodler riffs on the home-page logo to its role in transforming April 1st into a riot of web foolishness. Google can express that spirit in its products, too. And indeed, that may be happening. Hit the lock button on the Nexus S, Google’s latest Android phone, and the screen zaps to black slowly, in the pattern of an old tube television. You’ll smile the first time you see it, and when your Mac-head friends show off the iPhone 4’s sleek “retina display,” you can thrill them with your little lock-screen trick. Sure, it’s small, but there’s something engagingly warm and human about the effect. Someone at Google decided to put a gag in my phone. That’s so cool!

5 A Social Life Is Overrated

Larry Page isn’t on Facebook, he doesn’t trade one-liners on Twitter, and if he has ambitions of becoming the Foursquare mayor of the Googleplex, he’ll have a hard time unseating Ty Lim, a Google attorney who has racked up 32 ‘plex check-ins in the past 60 days. Page’s apparent lack of personal interest on the web’s major social sites creates a convenient narrative for Google’s dreadful record in the space — a string of failures that include Dodgeball, Jaiku, Lively, Buzz, and Wave. Orkut, the social network that Google engineer Orkut Büyükkökten launched in 2004, is still alive (it’s big in Brazil), but few Googlers consider it a success. Meanwhile, Google has had several social-networking savants in the ‘plex and let them slip away to found other companies, among them Evan Williams (Twitter) and Dennis Crowley (Foursquare).

Jamie Zawinski, one of the legends of the free-software movement, once famously quipped that the most important question for anyone writing social software should be, How will this software get my users laid? That query can’t be converted into a data test, of course, and it’s an open question whether anything socially compelling can spring from inside the Googleplex. (Spend a couple of days there and it’s clear that Googlers don’t lose a lot of sleep over their failures to help you get laid.) “There’s an EQ — an emotional intelligence — around social software, and it just might be out of Google’s reach,” says Jason Shellen, who spent four years as a business-development exec at Google after it acquired Blogger and who now works at AOL.

Google insists that social-networking sites do not constitute a major threat to its advertising businesses. “Am I still going to be searching for products? Am I still going to be searching for travel deals? Am I still going to be searching for financial services? Yes, I am,” says Arora, Google’s business chief. And while Facebook may build a gangbusters business in display ads, people will continue to visit sites outside of Facebook — and Google will continue to serve ads there.

But that’s not to say Google is giving up on social. Far from it. Its success relies on understanding how the web works, and the web is getting more social all the time. Google has continued to acquire social startups — most recently Slide for $228 million (not to mention its rumored interest in buying Twitter for $10 billion). According to sources, Google isn’t planning a Facebook clone but rather it intends to roll out new social features across all its products. Its ultimate aim seems to be to collect and analyze the social activity that’s going on across the web, beyond Facebook’s walls.

In February, it unveiled the first of these changes, an update that ranks some results according to what your friends have shared online. It’s a classically Pageian effort to solve a problem by attacking it from an unexpected angle (see Android versus iPhone): If Google can’t compete with Facebook directly, perhaps it can render Facebook moot by making everything else on the web feel like Facebook. Still, building a fun web-based community turns out to be harder than building a great smartphone (witness the utter failure that is Apple’s Ping). Don’t be surprised if this is one arena where Page is happy merely to have a credible offering.

6 Listen Up: Talk Is Cheap

“Someone said ‘Hell has indeed frozen over,’ ” tweeted Eric Schmidt the day before the 2010 Super Bowl. The occasion was Google’s first major national TV spot. A simple love story told in close-ups of search queries — from “study abroad paris france” to “impress a french girl” to “long distance relationship advice” to the surprisingly moving climax, “how to assemble a crib” — it was perhaps the cheapest ad ever to appear during the Super Bowl. But it was a winner. The spot subtly drove home Google’s centrality in our lives because of its search engine.

It’s not entirely true that Google is an advertising company that doesn’t advertise. Search for keywords related to Google products — smartphone, email — and you’ll find Google has purchased the same search ads that it sells customers. It even advertises on Bing (it has the top paid spot for the keyword “search engine”). But with brand advertising, the company’s resistance has been deeply cultural. Persuasion offends Google’s — and Page’s — meritocratic beliefs. The company became the biggest search engine in the world because it built a better product, not because it created better TV ads than Yahoo.

Google’s build-it-and-they-will-come naïveté seems almost cute in the age of Apple. Many of Google’s advances go unnoticed by the public because nobody hears about them. Do iPhone owners know that Android lets you dictate email by voice? Imagine the marketing fun Apple would have there. Or that Google Voice rings all your phones when someone calls you, and transcribes your voice mail to boot?

Google has a few innovative, Googley efforts to market itself. The Google Demo Slam, for one, is a site that invites people to submit videos showing how they use Google’s best products. In one of the most popular spots, three brothers stuff their mouths with marshmallows, then try to see if their Android phones can recognize that they’re saying “chubby bunny.” But this effort is isolated: Google hasn’t run the winning submissions on TV (unlike, say, Doritos), and online the chubby-bunny spot has been viewed only about 200,000 times.

With its new CEO an introvert, perhaps Google will never tap its inner Apple. But maybe, in the bigger picture, that’s a trade-off worth making. Page is not a CEO out of central casting, despite the fact that Wall Street and the media tend to prefer extroverts as leaders: the superhero who puffs out his chest and delivers bold, motivating pronouncements. According to some surprising forthcoming research from management professors at Harvard Business School, the University of North Carolina, and Wharton, though, introverts can be more successful leaders — particularly in dynamic, uncertain, and fast-changing environments like the tech industry. “They tend to be less threatened by others’ ideas,” says Adam Grant, a Wharton professor and coauthor of the study. “And they’ll collect a lot of them before determining a vision.” Because introverts spend more time listening than talking, they hear more ideas.

The hallmarks of Google culture, including the weekly TGIF sessions where Page and Brin take questions from employees, are precisely about creating dialogue. Even if the company relies less on 20% time for unfettered product development, Page’s personal style is likely to keep new ideas flowing. The key for Page is to “surround himself with some extroverts,” Grant says. “Extroversion and introversion are the only personality traits where you need a balance between the two to be an effective team.” As the success of the Bing sting indicates, Page seems to be listening to his extroverts in embracing a bolder public profile — not for himself, but for Google.

7 No Goal Is Too Big (And Some Are Too Small)

Franz Och works in one of the far-flung offices on the Google campus, a leisurely 10-minute stroll from the T. rex statue, beach-volleyball court, and other trappings of life at an absurdly successful web company. This is because he’s in Google’s research department, whose mission is to tackle problems that are far removed from the everyday pressures of the bottom line.

Och oversees Google’s machine-translation system, a spectacularly ambitious effort that analyzes text found on the web to create statistical models that can transform one language into another. Machine translation is far from perfect, but Google’s project, which began in 2004, has succeeded far beyond what most experts thought possible. Including Och. Google spent a year trying to recruit him; each time, he explained to Page and other execs that what they were asking for couldn’t be done. “They were very optimistic, and I tried to tell them to be cautious,” he says. “It’s really complicated, extremely expensive, and you need very large amounts of data.”

That audaciousness — the ambition to tackle a seemingly unsolvable problem with deep reservoirs of money and data — is the ultimate insight into what makes Google Googley. “When people come to Larry with ideas, he always wants it bigger,” says one ex-Googler. “His whole point is that only Google has the kind of resources to make big bets. The asset that Larry brings is to say, ‘Let’s go and make big things happen.’ ” (This may explain why Page isn’t interested in a Facebook killer: “With social, there isn’t a problem for Google to solve,” says the former Googler Shellen.)

The company hired Och despite his skepticism, and today, machine translation (along with speech recognition) is one of Google’s best-known artificial-intelligence projects. It’s also a key competitive advantage. Even on the iPhone, you’ll use Google’s software to help you read that French road sign or to transform your voice commands into text searches. Och now seems bemused by this success. Google, he says, simply had far more resources — more data, more computing power, more money — than he ever thought possible. Google can now translate 58 different languages. “When I started at Google, if you told me that five years later we’d be able to translate Yiddish, Maltese, Icelandic, Azerbaijani, and Basque, I would have said, That’s just not going to happen,” he says. “But [Page and Brin] didn’t believe me. And I guess they were more right than I was.”

Google is not always easily categorized. You can’t shorthand it the way you can with, say, Apple (a consumer electronics company) or Microsoft (a software company). While minimizing the world-changing visions of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates seems unwise, making computers a utility and transforming their power into desirable objects cannot compare with the ambitions of Google’s founders. Page and Brin’s stated mission has been to catalog and analyze all of the world’s information, and their larger, unstated aim is to reform all of the globe’s inefficiencies. In addition to translation and speech recognition, the founders are obsessed with image recognition (Google Goggles), advanced energy solutions (Google Energy), and robotics (check out its self-driving car).

Page and Brin’s big bets don’t always work. Google has had to back off reinventing TV-, radio-, and print-advertising sales; its book-digitization project has become a protracted mess; and its initiatives to make wireless networks more open and to change the way cell-phone carriers sell their plans have failed.

Focus on the misses, though, and you risk overlooking its remarkable successes. Google persists in reforming modern communications networks. Google Voice has taken off. Indeed, in 10 years, we might look back on this moment in Google’s history with surprise. While tech wags slagged Google for losing to Facebook, almost none of us saw it turning into the world’s largest phone company.

That’s what’s thrilling about Page taking the helm at Google right now. You get the sense that under his leadership, Google could try its hand at anything. More than anything else during my interviews with people who know Page, one comment stands out: “I don’t care what you put in the article,” says David Lawee, Google’s head of acquisitions. “To me, this is the real story: Larry is a truly awesome inventor-entrepreneur. My aspiration for him is that he becomes one of the greatest inventors-entrepreneurs in history, in the realm of the Thomas Edisons of the world.”

Over the top? Sure. And yes, Lawee is talking about his boss. But he seems dead serious as he says this. He truly believes Larry Page’s Google will change the world. Should we believe it too?