Will Google X get Google’s Mo Jo Back?

What do you do when the search engine you started up with your fellow uber-geek partner makes you fabulously wealthy, but somehow all the billions it’s raking in leaves you feeling rather empty?

What do you do when you’re no longer the darling of the mainstream press, who once enthused that no challenge was too daunting for you and your company full of exceptionally gifted and only slightly less egotistical baby geniuses.

Well, if you’re Sergey Brin, you find a new toy. You leave the mind numbingly mundane business of running a multi-billion dollar mega-corporation to your power-tripping co-founder and you lock yourself away in an undisclosed office somewhere in Silicon valley, spending your day playing with robots, space elevators, virtual reality glasses and self-driving cars.

You go back to what you wanted to do in the first place, which was to “put a ding in the universe.” And it’s probably no coincidence that you’re following in the footsteps of your “love me or hate me” mentor, the late Steve Jobs.

Say what you want about Google, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Brin and Page wanted to change the world in substantial (and hopefully non-evil) ways when they started. But the business of running a business tends to make one put ideals on hold and focus on the bottom line. Taking your company public doesn’t help. Shareholders typically value revenue over revolution, profits over prophesy. “Sure, robots and space elevators are cool, but tell me how that’s going to contribute to our quarterly earnings?” Public companies, by necessity, tend to focus on the short term rather than the long.

But Brin has never been a short-term guy. Neither has Page, for that matter. They both love to take something and spin it into a grandiose vision. For Page, he felt he could best realize that by taking over the leadership of Google. But for all the power that comes with that role, there’s also a heaping helping of compromise. Brin apparently felt more comfortable in the more idealistic environs of the Google-X Lab.

If you’re not familiar with Google X, it’s a super secret hidden laboratory where an ultra-powerful super computer and high tech gadgets allow the billionaire to fight crime … no, wait, that’s the Bat Cave. Google X is a secret laboratory where Brin has been spending a lot of time lately. In a NY Times article from last November, it’s described as a, “clandestine lab where Google is tackling a list of 100 shoot-for-the-stars ideas. Google is so secretive about the effort that many employees do not even know the lab exists.”

What are some of these “shoot-for-the-star” ideas? There is no definitive list, given the “hush hush” nature of Google X, but third party reports commonly mention space elevators, driverless cars, connected household appliances, and one project that is starting to see the light of day – Google Glass, wearable technology that someday could bring a Google interface to the world around us (more about this in a future column).

Google X certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of ambition. It’s the type of thing we used to routinely expect from the Google we knew and loved. And it’s got oodles of “cool “– robots and space elevators and driverless cars – oh my! But these types of skunk work projects are often just a way to pacify a few highly placed egos and keep them out of the way while the real work of the company gets done by those who are a little less grandiose in their ambitions. And Google X does suffer from Google’s long-term problem of trying to do everything at once. The company has always had a problem with focus. Unlike Google X, Job’s lofty ambitions and break away projects at Apple were tied to a product that would ship sometime in the next decade. Don’t expect to see a space elevator coming to your neighborhood anytime soon.

So the question remains: will Google X define the future of Google, or is it just a plaything to keep Sergey happy? Only time will tell.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider May 31, 2012

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