Can Google Stay Google?

It is the company of the nanosecond — and a really, really rich one at that. But Silicon Valley often eats its own young. So what are Messrs. Brin and Page planning to keep Google thriving for the long haul?

When you visit Google’s headquarters, you have a vague feeling that there’s something wrong here, but it’s hard to say exactly what. In nearly every way, Google seems a corporate utopia, a vision of an idealized 21st-century corporation. The campus looks more like an idyllic resort than an office complex where anyone ever gets work done. The centerpiece of the main quadrangle is a beach volleyball court that sees a lot of action throughout the day. And look, there’s cofounder Sergey Brin, 31, the $9 billion man, competing in a midday game. The rectangle of white sand is surrounded by green: grass that appears as though it’s groomed daily and cacti that thrive in the sunny, humidity-free 80 degrees. The campus’s pathways are strolled by employees so youthful and healthy looking that you wonder whether you made a wrong turn a few miles away in Palo Alto and wound up on the Stanford campus instead. Google has been sued for allegedly discriminating against workers over 40 years old. Only the shiny postmodern architecture makes you feel as if you’re at a high-tech company. And the atmosphere seems strangely calm and quiet, almost lazy. It’s hard to believe that this is a company that has been coping with breathless growth — a company where it’s not unusual for a marketing staffer to cycle through four different bosses within a year and a half. The only corner of the campus where there’s visible tumult is the grill line at the cafeteria, which lives up to its reputation as one of the best places to eat in all of food-crazed northern California. The organic all-you-can-eat buffet is free to employees for lunch and dinner.

Google is ever so young, self-satisfied, and happy. And rich! By late spring, its stock reached toward $300 a share, more than triple its $85 debut price when the company went public only the year before. Wall Street investors haven’t hesitated to pay well over 100 times earnings for Google, betting that the company’s growth is only just beginning. The seven-year-old startup boasts a market value of $80 billion, more than Yahoo, Amazon.com, eBay, or Oracle. For years it has been the company of the nanosecond. So why do you feel that gnawing sense of unease as you tour its eco-friendly buildings?

Suddenly, you realize why: This epicenter of the Silicon Valley present is haunted by a ghost of the Silicon Valley past. You’ve been right here before, in this very spot, during its original incarnation as the campus of Silicon Graphics Inc. Remember SGI? It was one of the hottest tech companies of the early 1990s. Its founder, Jim Clark, became a celebrity billionaire. Like Google, SGI was a geeky innovator glamorized by an adoring media — most famously, its expensive graphics computers powered the special effects for Hollywood blockbusters such as Terminator 2. SGI’s stock split twice in the early 1990s before peaking at $42 a share in 1995. But once its rivals had time to catch up, SGI went into freefall. By 2001, the stock had plunged to 31 cents a share, and the company had to lay off thousands of workers and abandon the gleaming new campus it had constructed. In came Google, leasing 500,000 square feet of the SGI space to accommodate its mushrooming workforce, which has grown to 3,000 people worldwide.

SGI is nearly forgotten only a decade after it reached the heights of Silicon Valley glory. It makes you think the unthinkable: Might Google face the same fate? Ten years from now, could Google be a vanquished champ while a newer contender takes over its campus? Silicon Valley is a notoriously brutal place. It’s incredibly hard to maintain a lead in technology. As Brin plays in the sand at the «Googleplex,» could there be the next Brin waiting five miles away at the Stanford campus — another obscure but brilliant computer-science graduate student who’ll swiftly reinvent the digital realm? Will slower-moving giants like Microsoft get the time to catch up? Google has terrific momentum — unlike many companies, it doesn’t have to worry unduly about the next quarter. The real questions (and they’re questions any fast-growing, innovation-based company must ask itself at some point) are: How can Google keep its edge for the long run?

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