Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google for the past 10 years, made a public mea culpa for the company's failure to crack social networking, and for its ceding control of swaths of the internet to Facebook.
"A CEO should take responsibility," he said, in a confessional interview at a technology conference. "I screwed up."
Mr Schmidt stood down from the day-to-day running of the search engine giant earlier this year, but has kept the title of chairman and a role as a roving ambassador for the company. His candid assessment of his period at the helm came as the company made a new push into social media yesterday with its Google Offers service.
People will be able to sign up to receive specially targeted discounts and deals at local businesses, in a service modelled on the successful Groupon business that Google tried and failed to acquire last year.
Google, which built its business by selling advertisements against anonymous search queries typed into its website, has been trying to encourage users to tell it more about themselves, so it can target more and better advertisements or deals at them.
"Facebook has done a number of things that I admire," Mr Schmidt said. "For years I've said we've missed something, which is identity... In the online world you need to know who you are dealing with."
And he added: "Three years ago I wrote memos talking about this general problem. I knew that I had to do something and I failed to do it."
Facebook began as a closed website where users were able to share their thoughts and pictures with friends, and has expanded to become a way of sharing a user's activity across the web. Other websites now allow people to log in using their Facebook identity.
Mr Schmidt said it would be better for competition and for easing privacy concerns if users did not concentrate their online activity through one single Facebook profile – but whether internet users will choose Google as a second online profile remains to be seen. Google Buzz, an attempt to build a social network from the address books of Google's Gmail email users, backfired last year. Google Offers is a new attempt to encourage internet users to build a social profile on Google, as is the new "+1" service, which allows users to rate and recommend traditional Google search results. These social features are ways "to make our own products better" rather than an attempt to go head-to-head against Facebook, Mr Schmidt said.
In the expansive interview on stage at the AllThingsD conference hosted by the Wall Street Journal blog, Mr Schmidt revealed that Google had repeatedly tried to do partnership deals with Facebook – including a deal that might have given the search engine access to the personal material contained in Facebook – but had been rebuffed. "We tried very hard to partner with Facebook," he said. "They were unwilling to do the deal."
In April, the chief executive post passed to Larry Page, one of Google's two founders, after Mr Schmidt and the board decided – in the words of the chairman at the time – that "adult supervision [was] no longer needed". Mr Page will focus on developing Google products, including new social media services and Google's Android and Chrome operating systems for smartphones and personal computers.
Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are reshaping the consumer experience on the internet, just as Microsoft reshaped it on the personal computer two decades ago, Mr Schmidt said. "We have never had four companies growing at the scale that those four are in aggregate."