Google's Eric Schmidt pulls no punches at Dreamforce

At Dreamforce '11 here in San Francisco, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt held court on everything from Sun to Apple to the US patent system.
Written by Matt Weinberger, Contributor

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt had a lot to say on stage at Salesforce.com's Dreamforce '11 conference. During his hour in the spotlight, Schmidt hit topics like the lessons learned from his time at Sun, his take on Apple's rebirth, and the next wave of technological innovation. Oh, and he put some time aside for a frank critique of the current patent system.

UPDATE: Google's posted a video of Schmidt's entire talk on YouTube.

Here are some highlights from his hour-long spotlight, lightning round-style.

On lessons learned from working at Sun and Novell: "What happens when you're in a successful company is you develop a certain kind of arrogance." There's always someone who can undercut you with a cheaper machine that works just as well. At Google, they understand this, because most of their price lists start at "Free."

On leaving Novell for Google in 2001: Schmidt was less taken with Google's offering than with the people he would be working with.  "Life is short, and you should spend the time working with people you enjoy." Shortly after, Schmidt added "What I liked about Google, there was a sense that everything was possible."

On Google's battles with Microsoft: The key to becoming a "world-class" organization in this day and age is to constantly delight customers with new updates. If you're not always innovating or improving the offering in some way, you're behind the curve. And Microsoft is lacking in knowledge, talent, and desire.

On the mobile revolution: The cloud and mobile devices like, say, Google Android phones and tablets go hand-in-hand so well because consumers and enterprise users alike want more power in the palm of their hands. The hardware approach only goes so far - cloud computing handles the rest. Moreover, top programmers are increasingly focusing on mobile app development.

On Steve Jobs and Apple's mobile dominance: Steve Jobs might be the greatest CEO of the last 50 or 100 years, Schmidt says, having brought Apple into new markets and paradigms with aplomb.  And he did it twice.

On Steve Jobs vs. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer: "Well, there's a difference in ability. But let's not talk about the people."

On the growth of Google Apps: Schmidt says 5,000 organizations are activating the Google Apps cloud suite per day.

On the next wave of technology innovation: Up next will be mobile, local, and social technologies that take the platforms and data that the current roster of thought leaders have already built and applying new approaches that we simply haven't thought of yet.

Schmidt says that Google can already predict when a traffic jam will occur (thanks to tracking data from Android users, "With your permission, of course."). "You talk about real time. Now, it's really going to be real time."

On the next generation of leaders: Marc Zuckerberg is a great mind and a true leader in the social space. But sooner or later, he's going to be followed up by new generation of visionary youngsters, which is why education reform and the nurturing of talent is absolutely critical.

On the Motorola acquisition: Beyond just patents, Schmidt says that adding Motorola Mobility adds a lot of key talent and tools to Google's portfolio. And he said it was nice to have a complete end-to-end mobile play, especially as over 550,000 new Google Android devices are activated each day.

On the US Patent System: In the early days at Sun, Schmidt says software development was driven by creativity. But now, he's less certain, and fears these constant patent battles will only stifle growth and innovation.

Google has the means to fight these legal battles, but Schmidt feels certain that it shouldn't have to. Every technology patent case that matters is settled in a single court district in East Texas, Schmidt claims.  "It just doesn’t feel right."

Google apparently audited a solution that would crowdsource figuring out prior claims for patents and take some pressure off the Patent Office, but Schmidt says that turned out to be illegal. Google is lobbying in the US Senate for that to change, but in the meanwhile, it's stuck.

I should note, in closing, that Schmidt didn't shy away from political comments, either, commenting on the state of the US economy and the role of social networking and technology in oppressive regimes.

All in all, it seemed like the only topic left entirely unaddressed was the elephant in the room: the FTC's antitrust investigation into Google. But with Schmidt himself slated to testify on the floor of the US Senate in just a few weeks, it's understandable, if disappointing, that no one would want to discuss it.

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