By Jon Swartz
Former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt has been through debilitating crisis like the Great Recession of 2008-9, but nothing like COVID-19.
“The strongest companies recover quicker than the weaker ones,” Schmidt, who was CEO of Google /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +0.46% /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +0.54% for 10 years until 2011 and executive chairman until 2017, said in a Zoom conference with about 200 business executives, investors, celebrities, and the press late Tuesday. (MarketWatch was one of the attendees.) “To put this delicately, use the opportunity of the crisis to reconfigure and ensure the decisions you make now make you stronger when this lifts -- a year or maybe less.”
Schmidt, who is technical adviser to Google parent Alphabet Inc. and teaches at Stanford University, was speaking to an eclectic group world-wide that included Oscar-winning actress Goldie Hawn, an executive from Square Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205989440/composite SQ 0.00% , and restaurateurs. The topic, “Where we go from here: Predictions for the post-COVID-19 world,” was hosted by analytics company Collective[i].
The pandemic-economic crisis underscores the necessity for a national broadband policy to reach rural areas, and a more even playing field for the economically disadvantaged who either don’t have access to laptops or Wi-Fi to take advantage of technology from Google or Zoom Video Communications Inc. /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM -0.56% , according to Schmidt.
“We need a plan, and we don’t have one,” he said. “We have an opportunity to move to something called TeleEverything... for health, education, manufacturing. And fixing bandwidth accessibility for everyone.”
At the same time, big tech has evolved in moderating content as more people express their views through social media and online video outlets, he said. “There was this belief 10 years ago, it was OK to have open dialogue,” Schmidt said. “Now, some tech companies [he did not name any] are rightfully going after liars and manipulators of misinformation, especially around coronavirus. Now, we have a moral responsibility.”
“There are five or 10 examples, which are excellent,” Schmidt continued, evidently alluding to Google and Facebook Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +1.52% . “It is a welcome maturation in the industry to police the dangerous, crazy people.”
Schmidt’s take on COVID-19 came several hours after MarketWatch spoke with longtime Cisco Systems Inc. /zigman2/quotes/209509471/composite CSCO +0.58% CEO John Chambers, who believes the pandemic will wreak havoc on the world economy for nine months to a year. He believes, however, that some startups and Fortune 500 companies will emerge stronger from the rubble if they make the digital transformation to big data, artificial intelligence, 5G, and edge computing.
See also: The CEO who built Cisco into a powerhouse has a sobering coronavirus diagnosis: At least nine months of economic pain
Schmidt shares the same vision and roughly the same timeline. And, like Chambers, he is hesitant to compare COVID-19 to anything before it.
“This [situation] is not a comparison,” said Schmidt, who navigated Google through the Great Recession of 2008-09. In 2008, for example, Google repriced stock options to employees to stabilize its workforce and retain talent. “It was the right decision at the time,” Schmidt said.
With the planet paralyzed amid nearly 1.5 million cases and more than 85,000 deaths world-wide , government and business leaders face a challenge never encountered before, Schmidt cautioned.
“This is the first time as a species we have had to face the same problem as a planet,” Schmidt said near the end of the 90-minute forum. “About 11,000 years ago, when we hard to learn how to do farming. We can either join together or split apart.”