Is the Google brand bigger than its leadership?

With new reports on the health of Steve Jobs appearing today (he has a hormone imbalance that has caused weight loss), it got me thinking about whether Google is so dependent on its leadership. (Oddly, the report on Jobs sparked a rebound in stock today, likely because investors realized the CEO would continue on and deal with his illness over the next few months.) Apple as a company is tied inextricably to a leader whose keynotes are legendary. More importantly, Jobs is viewed as the main visionary behind such wildly successful products as the iPod and the iPhone. Most of us feel that, if it wasn't for Jobs, Apple would still be stuck in the days of low market share computers and fanboy hysteria. In comparison, Google has its own legendary leadership. Sergey Brin and Larry Page – the whizkids of Silicon Valley -- started the company in a Stanford dorm room, and Eric Schmidt has provided the financial insight and business leadership as CEO. Clearly, the company is the brainchild of these three geniuses: the free food, hybrid cars available for free rental, the occasional goofy humor (such as jokes on April Fool's Day and changing the Google logo on holidays) are all ideas that originate from the top. In 2008, the free food program was ratcheted down – I believe they now only offer free lunch and not free dinner. The news about this change, according to insiders, was delivered by Brin at a company meeting. Like Yahoo, Google is still run somewhat like a start-up, albiet one with 20,000 employees. Both Page and Brin are icons, and have been known for their crazy antics. Yet, Google as a company is a collection of really smart technical wizards, not just a large group of contributors following the directives of one leader. For example, when I met with members of the Android team last year, it was clear that they were running their own ship – they had the vision for a mobile OS that gave developers free reign. Teams are run with the freedom to think and create small, interesting Web apps that attract a loyal following. In terms of the core search business at Google, it's not possible for it to be one "product" you hold in your hand, like an iPhone. Google search works extremely well because of hundreds or even thousands of programmers who write code to crawl the Web effectively. Another example is Chrome, a browser that took on life as an internal developer tool for testing Java apps and emerged "from the trenches" and is now a contender in the next-gen browser wars. Google employees get to spend some of their time on pet projects, and that means they have ownership and insight into the long term goals of the company. It's almost an "employee-owned" co-op model (not really, but they do seem to have more ownership than at other large companies). There's a legitimate open source mentality at Google, such that the leadership – in my view – could change tomorrow and the company vision would continue almost unabated. I'm not saying Brin and Page are unessential to the company vision, but it seems to have been instilled so effectively that they could step aside and Google as we know it would not change that significantly. Apple, on the other hand, could become Creative Labs in less than a year if they lost Steve Jobs. Do you agree? Disagree? Post in comments to share your view...

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