Google co-founder Larry Page looks on during a product launch in February 2010.

Story highlights

Bill Gates' testimony in antitrust trial turned public opinion against him, Matt Rosoff says

Rosoff says Larry Page of Google is close to being in a similar situation

Page is stretching company from online video to social networking to mobile phones, he says

CNN —  

When Bill Gates testified via videotape in Microsoft’s antitrust trial in 1998, he was combative and defensive, as if he couldn’t believe how stupid the entire procedure was.

He didn’t expect the tape to be shown in court. It was, and it was a disaster. Public opinion turned – instead of a billionaire genius who had built Microsoft into the most valuable tech company in the world, he was a condescending monopolist who didn’t have time for the legal system.

Amazingly, Gates didn’t see it coming. As Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen relates in his recent autobiography, the anti-Microsoft sentiment “cut Bill to the core.” Gates told the media that government attorney David Boies was “really out to destroy Microsoft.”

In his rational engineer’s mind, Microsoft was simply a winner. It had beaten its competitors by being smarter and working harder. It seemed deeply unfair for the government to build a case based on the complaints of those competitors and undo everything that Gates had worked so hard for.

Flash forward a decade.

Google is the new Microsoft. It dominates its industry so completely that a few slight tweaks to its search engine can throw other companies into turmoil by burying them in search results. It’s using the incredible cash generated by that business to expand in a million different directions at once, from online video to social networking to mobile phones.

The man running Google, co-founder Larry Page, has a lot in common with Gates.

Like Gates, Page is often described in otherworldly terms, a near-genius with autistic tendencies like counting the seconds out loud while you’re explaining something too slowly to him. Like Gates, he has run his own company for his entire adult life and has had uninterrupted success. Like Gates, he has an engineer’s soul and is obsessive about cutting waste – one of his first acts after taking over as CEO in April was to send an all-hands e-mail describing how to run meetings more efficiently.

Like Gates, he is hugely ambitious – he once suggested that Google hire a million engineers and told early investors that he saw Google as a $100 billion company. That’s $100 billion in annual revenue, not just stock value. (It’s about one-third of the way there.)

And like Gates, Page may have a blind spot about the intersection of business and the Beltway. For instance, when Google paid $3.2 billion to buy display ad firm DoubleClick in 2007, it got a search-engine marketing firm called Performics as part of the deal. Obviously, Google would have to let Performics go – federal regulators would never let the dominant search company own a search marketing company.

Except Page wanted to keep it, just to see how it worked. (Google sold Performics to advertising conglomerate Publicis Groupe in 2008.)

Back then, Page had a tempering force in Eric Schmidt, who was the company’s CEO and was originally brought in by its investors to provide “adult supervision.”

But since Page reclaimed the CEO title, the brakes are off. In his first five months, Page has reorganized the company to his liking, cut a bunch of marginal projects like Google Health and mobile app maker Slide, launched a social network to compete with Facebook and bid $12.5 billion to buy Motorola’s mobile phone business.

Now, antitrust investigators are circling Google – just like they did with Microsoft. Europe has already launched a formal investigation, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is taking a close look as well.

As Google keeps expanding with big, bold moves, Page will find himself thrust into the spotlight like he’s never been before. For Google’s sake, here’s hoping he handles it with more grace than Gates.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Rosoff.