"When you're God, you have quite a long way to fall if you do something wrong," Sullivan said. "It's hard to think of a company that's been put on a pedestal as much as they have."
The company's ability to earn profits while not alienating users by bombarding them with ads, tech analysts say, is a direct outgrowth of the founders' vision. Sergey Brin, a University of Maryland alumnus, and Larry Page, a veteran of a D.C. software company, created Google as idealistic Stanford University graduate students. The company still lists under "10 things Google has found to be true" that "you can make money without doing evil."
To be sure, going public is not Brin's and Page's first choice. Both have indicated in past statements that they're in no hurry to do an IPO. But because of Securities and Exchange Commission regulations governing private companies of a certain size, Google would be forced to disclose its financials this spring even if it didn't go public. Since the company will soon lose a key benefit of staying private, most Google analysts consider it a near-certainty that the company will try to reap the rewards of going public. And the rewards could be enormous.
"You think of all the Microsoft millionaires. I'm sure the Google people are starting to make their calculations," said Michael Moe, chief executive of Think Equity Partners, a San Francisco investment bank.
Analysts' estimate Google's value at $15 billion to $20 billion, and they say an IPO could generate up to $4 billion. The company won't release figures, but analysts have estimated its annual revenue at $500 million to more than $1 billion, with profits in the range of $150 million to $300 million. The money pours in along two primary paths: by giving advertisers the chance to display links to their sites based on a user's search terms, and by providing Google search capability on other Web sites -- such as AOL and washingtonpost.com.
Google's size and proven profitability make it, in the minds of many on Wall Street, much less of a gamble than the countless Silicon Valley start-ups with strong technology but shaky business models that went belly up in the past several years.
"The company seems to be a printing press for money," said David Menlow, president of IPOfinancial.com, an IPO research firm. He said "virtually any price" for the stock "will be considered acceptable."
Since the bust began in 2000, the IPO market has sunk into a prolonged dormancy. In 2003, there were fewer IPOs and they raised less money than in any other year since the 1970s, according to Renaissance Capital. Compared with the boom years, when upwards of 400 companies went public per year, only 69 took the plunge in 2003, of which just four were dot-coms.
But the IPO market has recently showed signs of a turnaround as the economy has gathered strength. Renaissance Capital reported that fourth-quarter IPOs were close to average levels, and there's hope that Google can supply the spark needed to set off the next bull market for new offerings.
"A Google IPO will give people a sense that it's possible to do a successful tech public offering. And other companies that are in the queue will be able to follow," said Jonathan Silver, managing director of the venture capital firm Core Capital Partners in the District.