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At Google’s Annual Meeting, Silence From Larry Page

NY TIMES BITS BLOG

Larry Page was missing in action Thursday at Google’s annual meeting because he had lost his voice. Eric Schmidt, the company’s former chief executive and now executive chairman, pinch-hit. Mr. Schmidt did not explain what happened but made clear it was serious enough that Mr. Page had already canceled his appearance at a major Google event for developers next week as well as on the company’s quarterly earnings conference call next month.

Mr. Schmidt quoted Sergey Brin, Google’s other co-founder, as saying this would make Mr. Page a better executive: “He will have to choose his words very carefully.”

So what did Mr. Page miss? Annual meetings for highly profitable companies tend to be love-fests with an occasional activist thrown in for spice, which means there wasn’t much excitement. Mr. Page would have witnessed the success of efforts by himself and Mr. Brin to keep their iron control over Google into the foreseeable future. Shareholders voted in favor of a plan to split the stock that does not give the new shares any significant voting rights. This outcome was never in doubt because Mr. Page and Mr. Brin have voting control.

For the same reason, there was no chance that three measures proposed by shareholders but opposed by management would pass. One of these involved leveling the playing field between insiders, whose shares have 10 times the voting power, and everyone else. In a quasi-Orwellian moment, a Google executive said that shareholders at the meeting could vote on this and the other proposals if they wanted, but that they had already been defeated.

Some of the things shareholders wondered about: YouTube captioning for the deaf, the viability of ads on mobile devices, the point of buying the low-margin hardware maker Motorola, Facebook. Some of the shareholders appeared a little uninformed, like the man who wanted to know why there was not an online store where he could buy Google products. (There is.)

Mr. Schmidt said the future was bright for Google if it could remain focused. He also celebrated the virtues of corporate transparency, but not to the point of saying exactly what happened to Mr. Page’s voice. A Google spokeswoman said no further details were available.

A theatrical moment occurred before the meeting, when a watchdog group dressed up as “the Google Track Team” to protest what it viewed as the company’s less-than-exemplary privacy policies. The protesters, from Consumer Watchdog, tried to “track” Google employees and shareholders as they checked in for the meeting. Google’s security team was not amused.