Eric Schmidt, Google

Eric Schmidt
When Eric E. Schmidt, the 48-year-old veteran of Sun Microsystems (SUNW ) and Novell (NOVL ), took over at Google Inc. two years ago, it was trial by fire. One of the first orders of business was joining his new 20-something colleagues at Burning Man, a free-form festival of artistic self-expression held in a Nevada desert lake bed. Sitting in his office shortly after his return, tanned and slightly weary, Schmidt couldn't have been happier. "They're keeping me young," he declared.

Google is proving the Net is still young, too. The freewheeling company has almost singlehandedly recharged Web searching, a business that pioneers such as Yahoo! Inc. forgot. Google is the most-used conduit between Net users and online information, responsible for answering roughly three-quarters of all searches. Indeed, it took an upstart like Google to help show the Net's leaders how to make money by linking ads to search results. Now, paid search is one of the Net's most profitable enterprises, especially for Google, which is expected to be in the black on revenues of $700 million this year. Its initial public offering, likely next year, could open the IPO floodgates for tech companies.

Schmidt's challenge: keeping Google focused even while beating back a growing pack of rivals, such as Yahoo! and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN. If Schmidt handles this right, it will be the competition that gets burned.

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