MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.: Even though its ubiquitous Internet search engine practically mints money, Google Inc. was widely seen as a company whose best days were behind it.
It was written off as the next Microsoft Corp. — a staid high-tech giant in the shadows of Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. that had lost its sense of urgency and innovative edge.
But that sentiment has shifted dramatically over the last year, and that was proved last week as Google swung open the doors to its annual conference for software developers.
Google shares rose to a record after the company unveiled a subscription music-streaming service and overhauled its online maps, part of several product updates aimed at attracting more users and advertisers.
The world’s most popular search engine also showed off enhancements to the Android mobile operating system, Glass computing spectacles, Chrome browser and other initiatives at the I/O conference in San Francisco. By getting developers to write software for such products, Google is seeking to broaden the appeal of its services.
“A year ago, everyone thought Google was just going to collect its pension checks” from search advertising, said Steven Levy, author of the book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. “Now it’s the hot company again.”
One of the main reasons Google is the company that everyone is talking about: big ideas.
Google has long been known for making long-term bets on audacious ideas, some of which evolve into indispensable parts of our everyday lives: photographing every street on Earth to create a digital replica of the planet, or providing instant translations of websites in any language.
Under Larry Page, the Google co-founder who took the reins two years ago from longtime Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, Google is experimenting even more. Building artificial intelligence software to power driverless cars. Wiring homes with super-speedy broadband. Developing futuristic glasses that when spoken to or touched let users take photos and snippets of video or send email.
Google even has a small group of researchers coming up with a simulation of the human brain, part of its effort to bore so deeply into people’s habits and lives that it can understand what they want — sometimes before they themselves know it.
“There’s not much competition” when it comes to exploring technological frontiers, Page said during the company’s first-quarter earnings call, “because no one else is crazy enough to try.”
These attention-getting projects have reinvigorated Google’s image in Silicon Valley and beyond. The company has a starring role in a new Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson movie coming out June 7, The Internship, which showcases Google products and casts Google as “the greatest place to work in America.”
And it has again become the darling of Wall Street. Analysts still fret that searches on desktop computers, Google’s most lucrative way to sell ads, will cool off before it can come up with its next big money-maker. But they say Page has impressed investors by running this $50 billion business of nearly 54,000 workers with hardheaded discipline.
Page has sharpened the company’s focus on a handful of product areas to deliver, in his words, “one consistent, beautiful and simple Google experience.”
As rivals Apple and Facebook each experienced their own bruising falls, Google stock has shot up 65 percent since Page took charge. Google recently surpassed the market capitalization of Microsoft.
Prospects could get brighter if Page realizes his big ambitions for Google. Page wants Google to be on every screen and every device so online advertisers can always reach consumers.
Analysts aren’t sure Page can pull off that feat. And not everyone sees Google through such rose-colored glasses. Google must crack the code on making money on mobile devices and faces growing pressure to turn technology into moneymaking businesses.