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Making sense of Google's seemingly kooky moves

Published October 12, 2010 7:34 pm

Technology • Stock falls for the year, but investors appreciate transparency.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

San Francisco • In its self-proclaimed drive to make the world a better place, Google has immersed itself in far more than Internet search and online ads. But driverless cars and a wind energy farm in the Atlantic Ocean?

It may not always be immediately apparent to some frustrated investors — they wish management would focus more on the stock price — but there's usually some calculated logic underlying Google's unconventional strategy.

Google's brain trust — founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, along with CEO Eric Schmidt — think differently than most corporate leaders, and may eventually encourage more companies to take risks that might not pay off for years, if ever.

The time is ripe for long-term thinking, they reason, with memories still fresh of the financial meltdown — a byproduct of Wall Street's demands for companies to deliver ever-higher profits every three months.

Even so, it might be difficult to fathom how Google can justify paying for the development of robotic technology that has driven cars thousands of miles on California roads without a major accident and committing hundreds of millions of dollars to help build a wind farm hundreds of miles from the Eastern Seaboard.

With a little imagination, it's easier to see how Google might benefit. For instance, the driverless technology could be implanted into a fleet of vehicles used for car sharing. Google then could use a camera to take new pictures of streets and highways that appear in its online maps, which has become an indispensable tool that helps the company sell advertising.

The company announced Tuesday it would buy a 37.5 percent stake in the Atlantic Ocean wind energy project, investing in a network of deepwater transmission lines to bring power from still-to-be-built offshore wind farms.

That makes more sense when you realize Google already sucks up massive amounts of energy from the power grid and expects to consume even more in the next decade as it opens more data centers. And if the value of renewable energy rises, Google eventually could even sell its stake for a tidy profit.

Or it could turn out to be a total bust, something Page and Brin warned potential investors could happen in April 2004 when they laid out their iconoclastic approach to business before Google sold stock in an initial public offering.

Google's transparency has placated most of its shareholders, although some analysts agree the stock price probably would be higher if management used some of the company's $30 billion in cash to pay a quarterly dividend or buy back shares. Google stock closed at $541.39 on Tuesday, down 13 percent for the year and far off its all-time high of nearly $750 three years ago.




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