OAKLAND, CALIF. — Larry Page and Sergey Brin, it seems, are reluctant billionaires.
For some time now, all that stood between them and a fortune of almost Gatesian proportions were a few bankers and reams of paperwork. Like the dotcom kings of old, they needed only to take their creation to the stock market and then watch as throngs of eager investors made them Rockefellers of the new century.
Yet they paused. Only now, forced to action this week by a Depression-era federal law, are the founders of the Internet search engine Google at last moving toward taking their company public. In some quarters, their reluctance is regarded as either endearing or infuriating - the idiosyncrasies of two 30-somethings who hired the Grateful Dead's chef and offer lava lamps to Google's honored guests.
In Silicon Valley, however, it is seen as something else entirely: It is a sign that the region may be returning to its roots. For a decade, the valley's start-in-a-garage spirit has been obscured - first by a gold-rush influx of Harvard MBAs, then by the collapse of the dotcom bubble. But the legendary success of people like Hewlett and Packard, Wozniak and Jobs, was never really about money. It was about ideas, technology, and the freedom to innovate.
Now, Google is reasserting those values even as it confronts how much the technology world has changed. After all, no one paid much attention when Hewlett-Packard went public. But the dotcom dream has changed the calculus, and Google stands as perhaps the first major post-bust test of whether Silicon Valley's startup culture can survive the demands of public scrutiny.
"[Google] is worried about going public because ... it means a change in culture," says Michael Malone of Wired magazine. "And I'm sure [they're] not real anxious to have that happen."
They have no choice. A 1934 law requires that any private company that reaches a certain size must provide its operation figures and finances to the federal government. Google passed that threshold last year and needed to comply by Thursday, according to reports. An initial public offering (IPO) of stock is expected to follow.
That Google essentially needed to be dragged into Wall Street is telling. This is not some half-cocked dotcom built on selling breath mints over fiber-optic cable. Google is unquestionably the most dominant presence on the World Wide Web. It has spawned a verb - to "Google" something means to search for it on the Internet. And it has revolutionized the way users negotiate the Web, listing search results in a seemingly intuitive order that no other website has been able to duplicate. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau called it the "Swiss Army knife of information retrieval."
Worldwide, users run more than 200 million searches a day on Google. When it goes public, Google is expected to be worth more than $20 billion.
If ever a dotcom was ripe for an IPO, this is it. Yet Mr. Page and Mr. Brin have always been peculiar corporate captains. Before now, Google has repeatedly refused to confirm even basic information: how many people it employs, financial statements, or details about its IPO, for example. Its algorithm for culling relevant websites from user searches has become a more closely held secret than the recipe for the Colonel's Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But some analysts see a reason for all the mystery. "What people perceive as secrecy is just [the founders] trying to keep control," says Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.
Not every dotcom firm can be so picky, and most can only dream of Google-like success.
Indeed, few entrepreneurs have been able to hold on so long. Usually, they are devoured by larger companies or forced to sell the majority of shares to venture capitalists for money to survive. But Page and Brin are estimated to hold more than one-third of stock, and Google is still very much their company.
"These guys are realizing the dream of every entrepreneur: to run their company the way they want to," says Mr. Saffo.
Some of its office culture is classic Silicon Valley - such as roller-hockey games and refrigerators filled with free chocolate. Yet there is an underlying creative purpose. The founders require that every employee spend one day a week working on their own personal projects. One became Google's social-networking website, www.orkut.com, named after the staffer who invented it.
Even their one work mantra "do no evil," hints at something deeper. These are idealists of the first order. One reason they have been so secretive about their IPO, reports suggest, is that they are pioneering a way of getting lower-prices shares into the hands of everyday investors.
Normally, these shares are snatched up solely by banks. With the website, Page and Brin have often said their goal is to order the web into easily accessible and usable information. In truth, it is more of a crusade.
"They have spent a lot of time thinking about how to deal with this tyranny of too much," says Carl Howe, cofounder of Blackfriars Communications in Maynard, Mass.
"Everybody experiences it. You go into the grocery store and there are 200 varieties of cereal.... It's overwhelming for a lot of people. Google has turned that on its head. They said, 'We are the simple way to deal with too much information.'"
What is significant, say observers, is that theirs is scientific quest, and not a business venture. The dotcom boom imploded as MBAs came in search of a quick billion. "It wasn't a tech thing, it was a marketing thing," says Doug Henton of Collaborative Economics in Mountain View, Calif.
By contrast, Page and Brin met as doctoral students in Stanford's computer- science program, and were linked by the discovery of a mathematical algorithm they thought would change the world. They are still changing the engine, honing it - and thinking of new ways to bring more information instantly. And in that way, they are reconnecting to the legacy laid out by Hewlett and Packard 65 years ago.
"There is this desire to create something," says Jim Koch, director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University. "It's more than money. It's about what technology enables us to do."
• Staff writer Elizabeth Armstrong contributed to this report.