The richest irony of our rapidly evolving technosphere is that a successful tech company is always at risk of becoming a victim of its own success. An internet breakthrough could acquire such monopoly power that public action gets taken to restrain it. This could happen even if it is sworn to “do no evil", as an early avowal of Google goes. Among the most keenly aware of that danger must surely be Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of the world’s favourite search-engine firm that is now owned by Alphabet Inc., its adoptive parent company. In their effort to hedge the broad business against any such adversity, and to scale new heights, it seems the duo have had to look no further than Sundar Pichai, 47, the chief executive officer of Google who has been elevated to the corner office of Alphabet and handed charge of its day-to-day operations.
On the operational front, Pichai would seem the perfect person for the job. The India-born executive has played an instrumental role in Google’s internet-shaping rise. He is credited with the launch of Chrome, the company’s browser that consolidated its hold over the internet surfer’s first click, so to speak. He is also said to have helped shape Google’s open architecture strategy, which has let other developers use its tools for their own apps, expanding the reach of its primary offerings. Think of how handy Google Maps has proven for other internet gigs. As Google’s chief, Pichai reportedly sharpened its search game, upped advertising revenues, and lifted YouTube’s performance, apart from investing top dollar in artificial intelligence and cloud services. As Alphabet’s chief, he will now have to look over the hazy technology horizon to chart the course for other ventures like driverless cars, delivery drones and human life extension. These cannot hope to leverage Google’s asset base of information much.
None of it promises to be easy. Not just because of intense rivalry and all the flux that characterize those markets, but principally on account of a threat that looms over Big Tech in the US. For all practical purposes, Google is seen as a search monopoly, and anti-trust authorities have got its business practices under their lens for anything that could put either competitors or customers at an unfair disadvantage. Allegations against it have been levelled over the priority order of its search results, for example. In general, Big Tech is currently in the line of political fire in the US, where calls have arisen to either split up or nationalize the search engine on the argument that it is now a public utility. Pichai’s principal challenge would be to shield the business from any such harsh action. That he has what it takes to play Alphabet’s defence advocate has been clear to investors impressed with the earnest dignity he recently displayed in taking on some tough questions from US lawmakers. Even earlier, in 2013, he had openly welcomed an anti-trust probe of the company’s practices. For an entity dedicated to organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible, such openness is crucial. To his credit, Pichai has shown that he gets it. As Alphabet goes about trying to spin more and more value out of 0s and 1s, the binary digits that make up digital data, the quality of its leadership will probably determine whether its success works in its favour or not. The tech major has bet the outcome on Pichai.