The Future According to Eric Schmidt

Google chairman talks of the next trillion-dollar industry

On stage Wednesday at Cannes Lions, Eric Schmidt seemed like the kind of man—perhaps the only man, other than Steve Jobs—who could effortlessly convince an international crowd of 20- and 30-somethings to join a suicide cult and ascend with him to the heavens. Google’s executive chairman has that wealthy California brand of optimism that is as infectious as it is understated. He describes the future of human existence in the same calm way chef Thomas Keller might describe his roast chicken. Yes, it will change your life. But it’s only chicken.

     What does Schmidt’s future look like? “So I'm in Cannes and I want to buy a T-shirt,” he said. “My phone should be saying, ‘You can turn left here and go get 30 percent off your favorite brand.’ Then I go to the store and pay for it on my handset.”

     In other words, your phone will know what you want and it will allow you to pay for it without a credit card. “The best thing would be if Google knew what you wanted without you having to type it in,” Schmidt said. “With your permission, with a mobile phone we can trigger search queries about where you are.”

     But it gets better: In roughly a year, according to Schmidt, a third of all checkout stands in restaurants and retail stores will allow you to “tap and pay” with your mobile phone. “How big a market is that? We're talking trillions of dollars,” he said.

     Google, which announced “Google Wallet” for the Android in May, has been working with retailers to make such “tap and pay” terminals a reality. “The terminals are available now, the software is available now or this summer,” Schmidt said. “How long does it take an infrastructure player to upgrade a significant percentage of their infrastructure? It’s on the order of a year. It’s not a week, it’s not a month, but it’s also not five years.”

     And one more thing: self-driving cars—technology that Google has said could reduce the number of people killed in traffic accidents by up to 50 percent. Like mobile technology and “tap and pay,” Schmidt didn’t talk about the car as though it were science fiction. He talked about it as if he already owned one and was in the market for something better.

     Of course, it is incumbent upon every company chairman to project confidence about the future. “Optimism is great for a brand,” Schmidt told me later that night. But where someone like Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes—on stage before Schmidt—enthusiastically promises a bright future for television, there is something about a world without credit cards and car crashes that seems a bit more, how might you say . . . heavenly.

     Maybe that’s what led Cannes Lions to name Schmidt Media Person of the Year.

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