Are you a Googler or a Zuckerbug?

Think carefully before you answer. There’s a great deal more at stake than the passing satisfaction of an intellectual parlour game.

What we – consumers and advertisers alike – are being asked to debate is the future shape of the internet – the way we approach it, the way we use it. Up to now, it’s been pretty much a search-shaped universe, moulded around the success of its greatest information engine. Now we’re being asked to look at it a different way – the social network way – thanks to the meteoric success of Facebook.

Whoever wins the battle of ideas also scoops the global jackpot. Russian oligarch Yuri Milner and investment bank Goldman Sachs have already made their bet. They stand to be the biggest financial winners when (rather than if) Facebook becomes a publicly quoted company. But what about the rest of us?

Superficially, Google has little to worry about. It has just produced a record set of fourth quarter figures. To those who complain that it is, strategically, a one-trick pony, it can point to success on other online platforms. Video, of course, with YouTube; and more promising still, a potentially market-leading position in mobile with the aid of sub-brands Android and Chrome. What it does not get – CEO Schmidt’s recent enigmatic remarks about developing “serendipitous search – search results searchers didn’t even know they needed” notwithstanding – is social. An upstart rival has excluded Google from the market’s most dynamic area of expansion; from zero in 2004, Facebook’s global reach is now approaching 600 million.

Which brings me to my column, posted on this week, and its focus on the recently announced change in leadership at Google.

Leadership is one of the paradoxes of this sector. The products and services are highly sophisticated, the organisations which create them highly complex, but the leadership issue is often brutally simple. Continued success frequently comes down to the single-minded vision of a guru-like founder.

Zuckerberg: The $50bn leadership question

Looking ahead, that may well be Facebook’s defining issue as it moves inexorably towards public ownership, with all the grown-up demands that makes on a company’s leadership.

It is a frightening thought that one of the world’s most powerful brands is – and will probably remain – the brainchild of a 26-year-old genius with borderline Asperger’s Syndrome (to take a cue from The Social Network). His obsession with teaching the world to communicate electronically was born out of his own inadequacy at chatting up Harvard girls. Let’s see how he manages in the adult world of the capital markets, where you don’t always get your own way.

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