I watched Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt tango with several U.S. Senators in Congressional antitrust hearing Sept. 21 with an air of great excitement and anticipation.
My feeling was that either Schmidt would open his mouth and stick both feet in it, or that the Senate would fumble and ask too many questions that belied its stunning lack of knowledge with the subject matter -- the business of search.
Really, neither happened, and yet I was pleasantly surprised at proceedings which though fairly mundane provided some interesting points, including Senator Charles Schimer openly lobbying for Google Fiber high-speed broadband.
Really? Leave it to a politician to ask for something at an inopportune time.
Both sides erred. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) threw a chart at Schmidt but still managed to get confused over how Google's search worked. See the now famous Google "cooked" its search results dust-up between Lee and Schmidt on CBS here.
Schmidt politely and pointedly let him know that he was not comparing like products in comparing Google Product Search, which surfaces products for consumers and product comparison engines, which surface loads of products for price comparisons.
Lee came closest to embarrassing the Senate with this line of questioning. He should have been better prepared with the subject matter, which is no doubt complex.
Where did Schmidt misstep?
Schmidt mistakenly corrected Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) in claiming Google Places is not an app. It most certainly is. I have it on my Motorola Droid X and it comes preinstalled on most Android handsets these days as part of the Google Mobile app suite.
Still, Schmidt provided an assured performance, weathering 90 minutes of pointed questions from a Senate that appeared largely intent on getting him to incriminate the company by saying its search results were biased or that Google's intent is to use its platform to crush smaller rivals.
He frequently expressed his respect for healthy competition and apologized where he believed he confused Lee and others. He was courteous, and receptive to courtesy (I've always wanted to use that line from "Silence of the Lambs"!).
He skillfully sidestepped a question about how Google should be punished if it was guilty of monopolistic behavior, and got into some trouble when he claimed not to be certain on some things.
There was another awkward moment in the Franken exchange where Schmidt acknowledged he couldn't be certain whether there were biases in Google's search algorithm for some results. Franken said:
UPDATED: That was the worst gaffe Schmidt can be accused of from Wednesday's proceedings, which also saw an odd comment from Thomas O. Barnett, counsel for Expedia and partner for Covington & Burling, who said Google acquired its monopoly power because it got there first.
As anyone knows, being first does not a monopolist make. While people will argue Barnett's comment is a mere soundbite taken out of broader context, that's exactly what Google's detractors did about Schmidt's testimony.
Barnett, whose name I corrected after my inexcusable case of confused identity, defends Expedia as part of FairSearch.org, a group dedicated to making sure the world know Google must answer in court for its alleged, insidious monopolistic practices.
So why were people surprised and, perhaps a little dissappointed that Schmidt came off well?
Well, this is the man whom was quoted as saying Google liked to get right up to the creep line without crossing it. The suggestion is that Google has the power to cross it, but doesn't.
Read into that what you will, but it's far from the only controversial statement. Ask FairSearch.org, which has loads of them.
Here's my take: Schmidt isn't slipping up, He's deliberately being controversial, sparking attention. Why would he do that?
I can't no for sure but I do know he's more interesting in writing books, making speaking appearances on technology and appearing on TV. He tried to get his own TV show, which was scrapped.
He's an affable, good speaker and likes the limelight. But he is no Jon Stewart or Anderson Cooper.
Schmidt says the weird, controversial things he does to entertain. He's super smart, certainly smart enough to realize he can't fumble away Google's future with a few misguided, arrogant remarks.
So if you're waiting for Schmidt to screw up, don't hold your breath.
As an aside, these actions and slideshow from Consumer Watchdog, which formed a Track Team to symbolize how Google tracks us online, is fun, if not a silly:
Consumer Watchdog should stick to Congressional lobbying against Google instead of delving into publicity stunts.
It's one thing to make a strong statement to have Google stand on Capitol Hill, but quite another to engage in clownish antics to lampoon serious issues.