A rare visit to ultra-secretive North Korea this week has focused a public spotlight on Google (GOOG) Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who has logged thousands of miles as the giant Internet company's top-level ambassador to government officials and industry leaders in the two years since he handed the CEO's reins to co-founder Larry Page.
In recent months, Schmidt has met with congressional leaders to discuss a federal anti-trust investigation into Google's search business, conferred with the president of France about copyright law and joined top Samsung executives for the launch of a new Android tablet in South Korea -- where he also danced "Gangnam Style" with the K-pop singer Psy.
Schmidt's high profile spurred worldwide interest in his visit to North Korea, leaving some analysts wondering what he hoped to accomplish in that isolated, impoverished dictatorship. But overall, many believe the 57-year-old Schmidt's focus on external relationships has let Google make good use of his stature and seasoning, while leaving the company's internal operations to a CEO who is younger and often seems less comfortable in the public eye.
"Larry is a product-oriented guy, and I don't think he considers talking to customers and hobnobbing with politicians as the best use of his time. The fact that Eric is very skilled at that, and likes to do it, works out very well for Google," said Steven Levy, author of "In the Plex," a 2011 book about Google's growth and inner workings.
The 39-year-old Page occasionally speaks publicly and meets with high-level VIPs, in addition to running the company. But some observers say he can come across as less warm or sociable than Schmidt, who can speak bluntly but has years of experience in corporate relationships. Schmidt held top-level jobs at Sun Microsystems and Novell before he was hired by Page and Google co-founder Sergey Brin to serve as CEO from 2001 to 2011.
As executive chairman, Google says Schmidt is responsible for "building partnerships and broader business relationships, government outreach and technology thought leadership, as well as advising the CEO" and senior executives.
Google has not commented on Schmidt's visit to Pyongyang, other than to call it a "personal" trip. Some analysts say Schmidt is so closely tied to Google that it's hard to differentiate between his personal and corporate interests. But several also said it was unlikely that Schmidt was pursuing a specific business deal.
Instead, most believed the visit was part of a long-standing effort by Schmidt and Google to promote the notion of using Internet technology -- including Google's services -- to combat social ills around the globe. Schmidt appeared to confirm that notion after concluding his North Korean visit Thursday, telling reporters in Beijing that he and Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor, had urged the North Korean regime to give its citizens more access to the Internet and the outside world.
"As the world is becoming increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth. It will make it harder for them to catch up economically," Schmidt said, according to The Associated Press.
North Korea's young ruler, Kim Jong Un, has trumpeted goals for developing a tech-based economy. But his regime keeps tight control on Internet and mobile communications, and -- at least for now -- its impoverished population seems an unlikely market for consumer advertising, which is Google's primary business.
"This is probably the least lucrative market one could imagine for Google," said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Instead, he suggested Schmidt's visit was aimed at "getting a sense of just how closed a totalitarian society it is and what approaches might be taken to bring information freedom to a place like that."
Schmidt has shown interest in North Korea before. He spoke with defectors from that country last year during a conference on the Internet's power for social reform, which Patrick helped organize along with Jared Cohen of Google Ideas, a company think tank.
The conference focused on how the Internet and mobile technology can be used to counter criminal networks and corrupt governments like North Korea, which has been criticized for ties to international crime, Patrick said. Cohen, who has co-authored an upcoming book with Schmidt that explores these topics, journeyed with him to North Korea this week.
Some of Schmidt's other recent trips have been more directly tied to Google's business. Last month, he flew to Washington to meet with influential members of Congress about the Federal Trade Commission's review of anti-trust allegations against Google. The talks were part of a corporate charm offensive, which also included a meeting between Page and FTC officials, that some have credited for the FTC's adoption of relatively mild enforcement action.
Schmidt also met recently with Europe's top anti-trust enforcer and with French president Francois Hollande, who raised concerns last fall over Google's dispute with French publishers over the search giant's links to their content. Also last fall, Schmidt conferred in Seoul with the heads of Samsung and other South Korean manufacturers of mobile gadgets that use Google's Android software.
Many big companies like to keep the spotlight on their CEO, who may serve as chief spokesman and salesman as well as top decision-maker. But Santa Clara University business professor Tammy Madsen said Schmidt's role doesn't appear to undercut Page's position as CEO.
"In other companies, it might not be so clear," she said. "But it doesn't seem as if either is diminished or tainted, because of their history and how they worked together for so long."
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/brandonbailey.