OPINION: Larry Page and Sergey Brin are not household names. Which is wild. They’ve arguably influenced the world more than any other person (or duo since) ever.
And this week, they announced they were relinquishing control of Alphabet, handing over to the current Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, while retaining their controlling shares and seats on the board.
At first, the news hit me as a total shock. Why? Because we live in an era when tech chief executives are wealthy enough, and have achieved enough, to retire hundreds of times over.
But they don’t. They keep on going with whatever force that propelled them to their position as a global technology leader seemingly as strong as ever.
But after I spent a little time thinking about Page and Brin’s decision, it made sense. These are not your typical chief executives. They’ve never really courted the limelight like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Tesla’s Elon Musk or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
In fact, they handed over the keys of Google to Sundar Pichai back in 2015 during a company restructure that made Alphabet the group’s parent company.
They did this, as far as I could tell, because being chief executive of Google is a boring job. Google has been the internet’s biggest since the early 2000s. And since then, its dominance hasn’t been challenged at all.
Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, AOL, Bing, Lycos, DuckDuckGo. None of these search engines have won the hearts and minds war like Google has. Which in itself is pretty odd, because as far as I can tell, Google isn’t a much-loved company.
Somehow, Google has a relatively trouble-free reign as the internet’s only search engine. It has an 87.96 per cent market share as of October 2019. This is a figure that hasn’t moved much in over two decades.
Which is also peculiar because Google is a money-making machine. Literally. Last year it was reported that Google made over US$50m (NZ$76m) a day.
And the vast majority of this cash comes from its traditional business of selling advertisements. Page and Brin hired Pichai to keep the party going, freeing up their time to work on the more exciting stuff.
And Google, sorry Alphabet, has plenty of exciting stuff going on. X Development, formerly Google X, is the wing of the company that is making driverless cars, delivery drones, internet balloons and is experimenting with alternative fuels, amongst other things.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Which adds more weight to the theory that Page and Brin’s motives for stepping down are linked to the growing staffing problems at Google and Alphabet.
This is where things get dark. For a few years now, there has been a gentle simmering of employee unrest at Google.
Last year, thousands of Google employees around the world – including offices located in London, Tokyo and New York – staged a series of walkouts protesting claims of sexual harassment.
Google has also been accused of running a “white ‘collar sweatshop” at the centre of this is a group of 100,000 temps, vendors and contractors – known at Google as TVCs. It is also claimed, by former and current employees, that these workers are forced to work unpaid overtime.
There’s also the issue of ethics. Specifically, Project Maven, an artificial intelligence surveillance engine that uses “wide-area motion imagery” captured by United States military drones to detect people, vehicles and other objects. Over 3000 employees urged the company not to work on any project that could be weaponised.
And just last month, the New York Times reported that “Google has hired an anti-union consulting firm to advise management as it deals with widespread worker unrest”.
Suddenly, Page and Brin’s decision to walk away from it all isn’t so surprising. Their net worth of US$58.9 billion and US$56.6b respectively will help, no doubt.