Modern CEOs live on airplanes. But in stepping down from the CEO role to become executive chairman, Eric Schmidt's travel schedule is about to go into overdrive.
Google's bombshell announcement this afternoon that Schmidt, the company's second CEO but the first to provide "adult supervision" to Larry Page and Sergey Brin's world-changing creation, thrusts Schmidt into a role where he won't see the Googleplex very often. In ceding control of day-to-day operations to Page, Schmidt told financial analysts that he's preparing to focus on "the things I'm most interested in." In other words, meet Google's new schmoozer in chief.
Schmidt will focus exclusively on spreading Google's message around the world, talking to customers, partners, governments, and businesses thinking about spending money on Google's products. To a certain extent, that's what he's been doing already, but being able to focus his considerable energies on external threats and opportunities might allow Google's ruling triumvirate to adapt to a world that has found them nearly atop the tech world.
"For the last 10 years, we have all been equally involved in making decisions. This triumvirate approach has real benefits in terms of shared wisdom, and we will continue to discuss the big decisions among the three of us. But we have also agreed to clarify our individual roles so there's clear responsibility and accountability at the top of the company," Schmidt wrote in a blog post announcing the management moves.
While Google continues to operate perhaps the finest cash machine ever created on the Internet, one of its main problems over the last few years is that it has been late to realize that the world no longer sees it as a scrappy multicolored Silicon Valley start-up focused on Web search. This is perhaps most evident in Washington, where Google has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years and has faced trouble completing key projects, such as its Google Books settlement with authors and publishers and its proposed acquisition of ITA Software, both of which currently lie in limbo.
"An awful lot of the problems we've been having (in Washington) is that people don't understand what we really do," Schmidt said, admitting that Google let competitors and critics define the company in the absence of strong messages from Google. That's about to change, and Schmidt has an excellent place to start as a member of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology and a prominent supporter of Democratic politicians for years.
Google has also faced resistance from industries towards which it has directed its considerable intelligence, computing horsepower, and resources. One area where Google can use an image makeover is in Hollywood.
Google is trying to acquire film and television content for Google TV and YouTube's streaming service. So far, it's been slow going: the major broadcast networks have all blocked their content from appearing on Google TV, and YouTube has yet to get much material from the big Hollywood studios.
In music, Google spent much of 2010 laboring on a cloud music service, multiple sources have told CNET. Google must now secure licensing rights from the top four major music labels and numerous publishers. That can be a painful process, but one thing that the film studios and music labels understand and respect is star power and Schmidt is a marquee name in business.
It's also not hard to imagine Schmidt going on tour with Dave Girouard, president of Google Enterprise, wooing some of the Fortune 500's biggest companies to move their enterprise IT software over to Google Apps. Schmidt has a pedigree in the enterprise technology world, serving as CTO at Sun Microsystems and CEO of Novell before taking the Google job, and can discuss the needs and wants of enterprise IT managers with the best of them. And he can also push: Schmidt's efforts to sell Java to the world were considered essential to the spread of that technology.
One thing that will be interesting, however, is whether or not Schmidt can avoid a tendency to stick his foot in his mouth when it comes to discussing hot-button topics related to Google.
He's been slammed many times in the past for suggesting people should watch what they do on the Internet, change their name to escape past deeds, and turn control of their lives over to computers. In many of those cases, Schmidt appeared to be joking, but in many he didn't. Any true schmoozer can't leave a listener confused as to how to interpret his words.
As of April 4, however, Schmidt will be Google's public representative without having to worry about the nuts and bolts of Google's payroll or whether or not to approve a new social-networking project that involves implanting chips in the brains of volunteers. This is not a role that either co-founder, as brilliant as they are, is capable of taking on: Brin often appears on Google's behalf at product-oriented events, but a Page sighting is rare, and neither has much experience discussing Google's broader issues in public.
Thursday's announcement felt almost like a high-school graduation, with proud parent Schmidt sending Page out into the world on his own for the first time, confident in his ability to make his way. It would be premature to judge Page's chances hours after the announcement; while it's true he's done this before, Google was a very different place in 2001 than it is in 2011.
Has Schmidt done enough to prepare the brilliant but almost painfully shy Page for his spot leading one of the world's most important technology companies? One thing will surely help: Schmidt will be able to take much of the public pressure off Page as he circles the globe spreading the gospel of Google.
CNET's Greg Sandoval contributed to this report.