When Google went public in 2004, the three men running the company promised each other they would remain a ruling triumvirate for at least 20 more years.
Although their commitment to work together until 2024 hasn't changed, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and company co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are being reassigned in an attempt to recapture the free-wheeling spirit of the company's youth.
The surprise shake-up announced late yesterday will return Page, 37, to the CEO job he filled in Google's early days. The move ends Schmidt's decade-long reign in a position that also stamped him as the "adult supervisor" of a company that once seemed like a romper room filled with technological wunderkinds.
Schmidt, 55, will stay on as executive chairman. The new role turns him into Page's consigliere as well as a liaison for Google's business partners and government officials.
Brin, also 37, will be freed up to work on pet projects aimed at expanding Google's empire.
The changes take effect on 4 April, leaving the current hierarchy intact through the current quarter.
Google can only hope the new pecking order pans out as well as the old chain of command has. The formula turned Google's search engine into a moneymaking machine, with the latest reminder of the company's prosperity coming yesterday with the announcement that it earned $2.5bn (£1.6bn) in the fourth quarter — the most for any three-month period in its 12-year history.
Page started out as Google's CEO when he and Brin started the business in a Silicon Valley garage and kept the top job until the venture capitalists backing the company insisted on bringing in a new leader.
That led to the 2001 hiring of Schmidt, a professorial engineer who was previously chief technology officer at Sun Microsystems and CEO of Novell, both much bigger than Google at the time. After initially resisting Google's overtures, Schmidt bonded with Page and Brin to form a brain trust that proceeded to build the internet's main gateway and most powerful company.
Google now boasts a market value of more than $200bn, a success story that has placed Page, Brin and Schmidt among the world's wealthiest people. The three men are Google's largest individual shareholders, stakes that turned them all into multibillionaires.
But as Google has grown into a company with more than 24,000 employees, its decision-making increasingly has bogged down into a bureaucracy. The managerial constipation threatened to put Google at a competitive disadvantage as younger, more nimble Internet services such as Facebook pounce on new trends to lure away users and advertisers. At Facebook, 26-year-old founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls the shots in an entrepreneurial culture that has enticed dozens of engineers to leave Google to work for the social networking company.
"My goal is to run Google at the pace and with the soul and passion of a startup," Page said in an interview yesterday. "I think I will have time to do that given the way we have split up our responsibilities."
Schmidt concurred in the same interview, saying it had started to become clear the company needed to be run more crisply.
"I am not as concerned about the titles as I am winning," Schmidt said. "I am quite certain that this change will result in faster decision making and better value for the shareholders."
Google's stockholders have had little to complain about, not that it would have made a major difference because Schmidt, Page and Brin combined own a controlling stake in the company. Google is coming off a year in which its earnings climbed 30 per cent to $8.5bn and, although its stock price remains below its all-time high reached in 2007, it has more than doubled from its lows during the recession.