Larry Page defends Google's 'big bets' on Glass, driver-less cars

The CEO explains the thinking behind non-core products at Google

Google's core product may always be search, but the company is just as serious about providing in-the-moment information to users with emerging technologies such as Google Now, self-driving cars and Glass, CEO Larry Page signaled on Thursday.

Those products, along with others such as voice-based search, may comprise risky "big bets" at the company, but Google doesn't just want to be focused on "incremental technologies," Page said during the company's first-quarter earnings call.

That mindset, he went on to say, "is why we're investing in what appear to be speculative projects."

"Companies tend to get comfortable doing what they've always done with a few minor tweaks," Page said, though he refrained from citing any of Google's Silicon Valley competitors.

"If you look at most companies, they never do anything different, and they run into problems for that reason," he said.

"We found, with ambitious goals and a committed team, you can make progress," Page said. Gmail and the Android mobile operating system, for example, "were big leaps" because when they launched Google was seen as only a search company, Page said.

Specific timelines for when Google might be rolling out future products, and what those products might be, were not made clear.

"Voice commands are going to be increasingly important," Page said, adding that he was "excited by the momentum in voice search." In February, for instance, Google made its Web Speech API (application programming interface) available to developers on the Chrome browser, so they could incorporate speech recognition into their apps.

Page also called out improvements in hardware. Some of the biggest disadvantages of today's mobile devices, such as having to carry around extra battery chargers, or smartphones' tendency to shatter after being dropped, create "real potential for new and better experiences ... that are faster and more intuitive," Page said. Whether he thought those experiences could be had with, say, Google Glass wasn't clear.

Glass is a head-mounted augmented reality system designed to radically change the way people interact with their surroundings, by providing capabilities such as taking photos by voice command or sharing with friends what the user sees through the glasses. The product is being tested by a select group of customers who paid US$1,500 a pop.

"We're excited to get it out to developers and have other people create amazing experiences with it," Page said of Glass, which he noted was in its "early days" of development. Page called Glass' $1,500 price tag not a luxury price, "but certainly a pretty high price."

During the earnings conference call, financial analysts asked Google how it was planning to monetize some of its new mobile products such as Google Now, which functions as a kind of personal digital assistant to automatically give users information as they go about their day.

"I'm not worried about that at all," Page said. The reason Google has been successful at advertising, he said, is because "we view that as another source of information."

"The better the job we can do in providing users with information without their asking for it, the better we can provide commercial information from people who are excited about promoting it," he said. "It's a huge opportunity for us," Page added.

For the quarter, Google's sales rose by 31 percent to about US$14 billion, driven partly by strong gains in advertising revenue. Paid clicks, or the clicks on search ads paid for by advertisers, rose by 20 percent over the same period last year. However, the cost of paid clicks, or the money Google charges when someone clicks on an ad, fell by approximately 4 percent.

Google also provided industry analysts with an update on the status of recent changes made to its AdWords platform that are designed to let advertisers manage and bid for ads across multiple devices. Since that program launched in February, more than 1.5 million advertising campaigns have been transitioned over to the new system, Google senior vice president and chief business officer Nikesh Arora said.

Currently, 95 percent of the company's advertising clients have campaigns running across multiple devices, he said.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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