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Larry Page and Steve Jobs: advice given, lessons learned

He was himself once a young man, in charge of a very large technology company. If anyone could provide proper insight to a young Page as he became the leader of the free tech world, it was Jobs.

Published onJune 4, 2013

Larry Page

At the time Steve Jobs was nearing the end of his long bout with cancer, an important shift in Google management was afoot. Eric Schmidt had been running the show, while Larry Page and Sergey Brin decided what direction they wanted to pursue within Google, and his tenure at the top was just about done. Larry was set to take over the day-to-day operation, and Sergey decided to play in his laboratory, creating all kinds of forward-thinking products and services.

Page, understanding that Jobs was ill (and not going to recover), made a pilgrimage. Steve Jobs was the single greatest mastermind the tech world has known; a technology Jesus of sorts, both building Apple from scratch, and later resurrecting it. He was himself once a young man, in charge of a very large technology company. If anyone could provide proper insight to a young Page as he became the leader of the free tech world, it was Jobs.

steve jobs

The advice

“Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up”. Succinct, salient, and sound advice. This was Jobs in his final months. He fondly recalls his gut reaction to Page asking for a meeting was to say “F you”, but his cooler head later prevailed. Remembering that HP co-founder Bill Hewlett once guided him, Jobs thought it best to pay it forward.

We did not enter the search business. They entered the phone business.

Jobs clearly saw promise in the future, if not Page. Under Schmidt, Google had been seen as direct rival to Apple. “We did not enter the search business. They entered the phone business. Make no mistake, they want to kill the iPhone. We won’t let them.” was Jobs’ line from a 2010 town hall meeting. Schmidt, who had been a mainstay on the Apple board of trustees, was squeezed out over increasingly competitive practises at Google. Android and Chrome were considered to be in direct competition with Apple products, and Jobs was not fond of someone he considered the enemy, sitting on his board.


Jobs, for all his thermonuclear talk, was benevolent in his twilight. After the initial chat, Jobs approached Page for a follow-up commentary. He cautioned Larry about the quality and number of Google products. “They’re turning you into Microsoft”, Jobs quipped.

Fiercely proud of his Apple products and brand, Jobs was giving Page the only advice he knew to deliver. Perhaps Jobs was urging Page to take the reigns of Apple’s momentum, and ride it into the next frontier. What can be taken from the commentary is that Jobs so wanted Google to emulate Apple in some respect. He wanted young Larry to be more like Steve Jobs.

Apple Logo iPad 2 1600

The Apple way

Apple has made some fantastic products over the course of their timeline. They’ve also innovated some stellar services, and pioneered one of the most crucial shifts ever in the music industry’s move to digital. Would Google be wise to follow that path?

The company Jobs bled for is fabulous at delivering his vision of technology. It is not, however, good for us. Variety is important, and Apple is a little too vanilla in that regard. A variety of colors is not terribly important to mobile tech fans, but a choice in functionality is.

Larry Page had no intention of turning Google into Apple, but he listened to the message Jobs gave.

Apple services work fabulously. They are simple, straightforward, and fairly intuitive. From desktop to mobile, Apple does it right. They also settle into a niche once they expand a sector of the market. After taking a notable share of the mobile market is 2008, The tandem of Android and iOS have effectively wilted the competition since. In 2009, iOS boasted roughly ten times the sales of Android devices.

Since that time, Android has grown rapidly, and continues to do so. Apple’s iOS platform has not enjoyed such a rise, and has since settled into a niche. The same effect had been seen years before in the PC market: Apple expansion, then Microsoft dominance. Beautifully crafted products, which move slowly for an increasingly rapid moving technology landscape. The Apple way is not the only way, and Page knew that.

Google-IO-2013 Larry Page 2 1600 aa

Application of Wisdom

Larry Page had no intention of turning Google into Apple, but he listened to the message Jobs gave. The Google culture embraces exploration and cooperation, so the myopic and dictatorial nature of Steve Jobs may not have worked so well for Page at Google. The “20 percent time” theory of productivity is core to Google, with products like Gmail and Google Talk (now Hangouts) having been born of that ideal. There are also those products which end up being shuttered, like Orkut or Reader, that show Page’s understanding of Jobs’ message.

Time wasted is worse than profit lost for Google. A small financial loss, or slowly returned investment, is of little concern. Not having arrows in the quiver is cause for Page to worry. Page’s dictum is for Googlers to create amazing things that will enrich lives, and he seems a bit hands-off about how that’s really achieved.

The culture at Google affords such an approach, and it’s one Page has stealthily crafted and guarded over the years. Google is bursting with the right people, in the right positions, with the right mindset. A visceral contradiction to Apple’s seemingly forced attrition, as was evident by almost everyone on the original Mac team quitting after the product launched. They left because of Jobs. While the experience was enriching, Jobs’ management style had worn them down.

Google logo aa

A Google community

Jobs was a brilliant man, who was single-handedly responsible in leading Apple from the doldrums to the class of their field. Page, however, was not interested in volatile management or heavy-handed tactics. Google is more a community than a company, and it’s Page’s job to guide the wheel of the ship in the right direction.

While Jobs gave Page good advice, it was not immediately applicable to Google. The impending doom of spring cleaning each year, in which Google jettisons unnecessary or poorly performing services, is helpful. It serves to strike a balance between 20 percent time, and the task at hand. Making the decision on what to cut and keep is never easy, or perhaps clairvoyant, but it has purpose.

The work

Google has a singular focus, and that’s building amazing products that will enrich lives. The long term goals are substantial, and the real carrot for the crew in Mountain View. To accomplish this, Google operates like a technology man-of-war, as individual services link together, accomplishing the greater purpose.

Without a target on the board, everyone shoots from the hip, in their own directions. When everyone understands their place, their purpose, and the overall goal, we all win. This is Page’s method for applying Jobs’ wisdom: controlled chaos.

Google Voice Search for Chrome

Chaos theory

Naming Google services, we can lose sight of how they work together. Maps, Gmail, Search, Google+ — it goes on and on, and seems so disparate. Can Maps work with Earth? If so, why should they? The same can be asked of any Google service. Just what does Search have to do with social, anyway?

Finding out what Google wanted to be when it grew up meant Page figuring out who he wanted to be when he grew up.

The closer you can build relationships between Google services and teams, the more integral the technology becomes to us. If by searching for a good Thai restaurant in my area, the recommendations of my friends come up, I then have more reason to interact. I know what my friends enjoy, I have a reason to get in touch, and perhaps another excuse to re-visit the restaurant with them. From one ten second search, it’s plausible that I have added depth to my life in some small way.

This is the Google way, and how services that seem to have nothing to do with one another can both tie in and be important to each other, as well as all of us. This is the dance Larry Page choreographs, in which our daily lives are made simpler and more functional by the services Google offers.

It’s also important to grasp that Google is about those services, not operating systems. Jobs was upset with Android, and for good reason. Like iOS is a conduit for the App Store, so is Android for the Play Store. The difference is, Google has next to nothing tied into hardware. For them, helping to design a Nexus phone means they control the quality. Selling it for no profit does a multitude of things, most importantly get people tied into the Play Store. For Apple, they need to profit at every turn, because they’re culpable for every line item on their balance sheet.


Advice that resonates

Finding out what Google wanted to be when it grew up meant Page figuring out who he wanted to be when he grew up. Eric Schmidt knew he was “adult supervision” while Larry and Sergey came of age, and that suited him just fine. It was a smart move by the founders, who knew they couldn’t grasp the entirety of what Google was becomming.

Now that we’re in a space where Page is moving Google along admirably, tying services together all the while, the advice Jobs gave resonating throughout. Getting rid of what isn’t needed is a tough thing to do, but once you combine what is desirable into a cohesive unit, the fog lifts. Google will never be Apple, but a few valuable lessons have been learned along the way. Our gripe has always been that Google isn’t more cohesive across brands. As that changes, we’re wise to remember what Jobs told Page, just like Larry probably does.

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