Eric Schmidt gave a bravura performance last night.
On a day when Apple dominated the headlines with news about Steve Jobs and iCloud, the Google chairman snatched the spotlight away by presenting the press with headline-grabbing revelations about Google as well as himself.
"CEOs should take responsibility," Schmidt told AllThingsD's Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at the D9 conference, referring to his inability to develop a social-networking strategy. "I screwed up."
Apparently, there are two sides to the public Eric Schmidt. There is the one that freaks everyone out with his off-the-cuff remarks about Google's unchecked power to accumulate users' personal data. That's the Schmidt who can also stray off message, which is what he appeared to do two weeks ago in London when he said that Google would fight a bill designed to protect copyright even if it became law. Google couldn't distance itself fast enough from the statements.
Then, there's the other Schmidt, the one we got last night.
According to reports from my CNET colleague Rafe Needleman and others, Schmidt nimbly covered a lot of ground under a probing examination from Swisher and Mossberg. He met questions with snappy, candid answers that didn't always cast Google in a favorable light. Our CEOs don't often criticize themselves publicly or lift the curtain on their companies. For this, Schmidt generated a lot of talk and as of this morning his name was among the most popular topics on Twitter.
Here's just a portion of what Schmidt said last night:
Google tried to team up with Facebook but the social network rejected the overtures. He said he erred by not pushing for a deal hard enough.
He said the Internet now has four dominant players: Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. He said they are followed by PayPal and Twitter, but he omitted Microsoft.
Google has built facial-recognition technology but the company withheld using it for fear that it could be used by evil governments.
Schmidt said Google expects constant government scrutiny.
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When it comes to crediting Schmidt for being candid about his goofs, critics will likely note that he could have mentioned the trouble Google got into for the Street View's data vacuum as well as the expensive legal fight the company entered into when it sought to scan millions of books.
But if nothing else, Schmidt's D9 interview proved that he at times can be an effective spokesman for Google, a master at directing the conversation in whichever direction Google wants. All we can do is wonder whether CEO Larry Page will one day take up this job and step into the limelight himself.