For the past few years, Sundar Pichai has been part of a tag-team routine staged at Google’s annual I/O developer conference. Pichai, a Googler since 2004, would present on behalf of Google’s Chrome division, including its browser and cloud-based operating system. His counterpart was Andy Rubin, head of Google’s Android division. As Android grew to the world’s most popular mobile OS (it’s now on 750 million devices worldwide, with 1.5 million new activations every day), people wondered what was the sense of Google having two operating systems. Meanwhile, Andy Rubin was the unofficial king of I/O.
That won’t be the case this year. In March, Google announced Rubin was stepping down from Android to pursue unspecified moon shots elsewhere in the company. Pichai would take over Rubin’s duties at Android. He immediately went from being an important Google executive (in addition to Chrome, he was also in charge of Google’s apps efforts) to perhaps the most pivotal member of Larry Page’s “L-team” of top executives. So far Pichai, a 40-year old grad of the fabled Indian Institute of Technology and later Stanford, has kept his head down and refused all press. But as this week’s I/O event approached, he granted WIRED his first interview since taking over Android.
WIRED: The Android handover from Andy Rubin to you seemed sudden and mysterious to us on the outside. Was it long in the works?
PICHAI: I got to know only towards the end of the process of Andy deciding to step back. It played out in a rapid time fashion over the couple weeks prior to the actual announcement. I am passionate about computing and so to me, it was very exciting to be in a position where I could make an impact on that scale.
Now that you’re in this new position, have your views evolved in terms of the coexistence of Chrome and Android?
I don’t think my views have changed much. Android and Chrome are both large, open platforms, growing very fast. I think that they will play a strong role, not merely exist. I see this as part of friendly innovation and choice for both users and developers.
But can’t it be confusing having two operating systems?
Users care about applications and services they use, not operating systems. Very few people will ask you, “Hey, how come MacBooks are on Mac OS-X and iPhone and iPad are on iOS? Why is this?” They think of Apple as iTunes, iCloud, iPhoto. Developers are people, too. They want to write applications one time, but they also want choice. What excites me in this new role is that I can try do the right thing for users and developers — without worrying about the fact that we have two things. We embrace both and we are continuing to invest in both. So in the short run, nothing changes. In the long run, computing itself will dictate the changes. We’re living through a pivotal moment. It’s a world of multiple screens, smart displays, with tons of low-cost computing, with big sensors built into devices. At Google we ask how to bring together something seamless and beautiful and intuitive across all these screens. The picture may look different a year or two from from now, but in the short term, we have Android and we have Chrome, and we are not changing course.
Still, it’s a huge use of resources to have two operating systems as opposed to one. This has to be an issue you wrestle with.
It’s a fair question. We want to do the right things at each stage, for users and developers. We are trying to find commonalities. On the browser layer, we share a lot of stuff. We will increasingly do more things like that. And maybe there’s a more synergistic answer down the line.
As Android’s new head, what do you see as the biggest challenge?
First let me talk about the opportunities. The scale and scope is even bigger than what I had internalized. The momentum — in terms of new phones and new tablets — is breathtaking. I see huge opportunity, because it is just shocking how much of the world doesn’t have access to computing. In his book Eric [Schmidt] talks about the next 5 billion [the people on earth who aren’t connected to the internet who soon will be]. That’s genuinely true and it excites me. One of the great things about an open system like Android is it addresses all ends of the spectrum. Getting great low-cost computing devices at scale to the developing world is especially meaningful to me.
Now what about the challenges?
Here’s the challenge: without changing the open nature of Android, how do we help improve the whole world’s end-user experience? For all your users, no matter where they are, or what phone or tablet they are buying or what tablet they are buying.
What does that mean when a company like Facebook comes out with Home, which changes that experience?
It’s exciting that Facebook thought of Android first in this case. Android was intended to be very customizable. And we welcome innovations. As for the specific product, my personal take on it is that time will tell. To Mark [Zuckerberg], people are the center of everything. I take a slightly different approach. I think life is multifaceted: people are a huge part of it, but not the center and be-all of everything.
Some people worry that Google might respond to Facebook Home by blocking this kind of approach in a future release.
We want to be a very, very open platform, but we want a way by which end users are getting a good experience overall. We have to figure out a way to rationalize things, and do it so that it makes sense for users and developers. There’s always a balance there. It’s no different from the kind of decisions that Facebook has to make about its own platform. But right now, we don’t plan to make any changes — we are excited they’ve done good work.
Hold on. You’re saying that you like innovation like Home–but at some point in the future you might decide that an invasive software approach like this isn’t good for users and can’t be done in a future Android release?
No. Let me clarify. Users get to decide what apps and what choices they want. Some users really want this. We don’t want to get in the way of that. [But] in the end, we have to provide a consistent experience. As part of that, with every release of Android, we do go through changes. So we may make changes over time. But if this is what users want, I think Facebook will be able to do it. We want it to be possible for users to get what they want.
What about something more drastic like Kindle Fire, which actually forks the Android experience into something quite different?
Under the rules of the license, Amazon can do that. In general, we at Google would love everyone to work on one version of Android, because I think it benefits everyone better. But this is not the kind of stuff we’re trying to prevent. Our focus is not on Facebook Home or Kindle Fire. Computing is going through a once in a lifetime explosion. Our opportunity is making sure that this works well for people and solves important problems for them. For example, you are going to have computing which can potentially warn you before you have a heart attack.
Is it a problem for Google that Samsung is so dominant, and makes almost all the money on the platform?
I realize this gets played up in the press a lot. Samsung is a great partner to work with. We work with them on pretty much almost all our important products. Here’s my Samsung Galaxy S4. [Pichai holds up the phone.]
How’s that eye-tracking thing working out?
I actually never used it. Look, Samsung plays a critical role in helping Android be successful. To ship great experiences, you need hardware and software together. The relationship is very strong on a day-to-day basis and on a tactical basis. So I’m not that concerned. Historically the industry has had long stable structures. Look at Microsoft and Intel. They were very codependent on one another, but it served both of them well. When I look at where computing needs to go, we need innovation in displays, in batteries. Samsung is a world leader in those technologies.
One benefit of Samsung being so dominant is that you don’t hear much concern that Google might show favoritism to Motorola, which it now owns.
For the purposes of the Android ecosystem, Motorola is [just another] partner.
What’s the future of Google-branded hardware?
You will see a continuation of what we have tried to do with Nexus and Chromebooks. Any hardware projects we do will be to push the ecosystem forward.
One reason that people think that Chrome might step back in favor of Android is that the Open Web might not be able to deliver what users need on their devices. As head of Chrome you have promoted the vision of cloud-based apps, based on technologies like HTML 5, saying that they will be as powerful and fast as native apps written to run directly on specific machines. But last year Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s biggest mistake was trying to use HTML 5 and the open web for its mobile apps. He said it simply didn’t have the quality and speed to serve his users. Was that a blow to your vision of Chrome?
I think the reality is a bit different. I managed Chrome and apps even before Android. Some of our large applications are now written directly to the device — for instance, we have native Gmail apps. But I disagree with the opinion that all of Facebook’s mobile issues can be blamed on HTML 5. I just don’t think that was true. There are other companies with very successful apps that have taken an HTML 5 approach on mobile and done really well. For instance, a lot of magazines have switched from native back to HTML 5 for the mobile apps. Financial Times did it, and they’ve blogged that their user engagement and traction has increased significantly. It’s the reverse of what Facebook said. And this is the beauty. Each developer’s needs are unique.
In terms of numbers, Android sells more than Apple, but Apple makes more money from its platform. Is your mandate to generate more revenue from Android?
We’re very comfortable with our business model. All our core services–Search YouTube, Maps, etc.– are used on phones, and Android helps people to use those services. So fundamentally there’s a business model there. And services, like Google Play, are obviously a source of revenue. We saw payouts to developers on Play quadruple in 2012. I think we are barely beginning to get started. We’re in the early beginnings of a sea change in computing. Think about education and enterprise — incredible opportunities. We’re much more focused now on the consumer end of the experience, but we think the right things will happen from a business sense.
Were you surprised to see a Firefox OS?
Not at all. The web is an important platform, and I don’t think it’s going change ’til I die. It’s another reason why if we don’t do Chrome OS, someone else will.
A lot of people have complained about Android’s update process. How does Google make sure that people will get updated with the latest version?
We are thinking about how to make Android handle updates better. We see ways we can do this. It’s early days. We’re talking with our partners and working our way through it. We need time to figure out the mechanics, but it’s definitely an area of focus for me and for the team.
What can we expect from I/O this year?
It’s going to be different. It’s not a time when we have much in the way of launches of new products or a new operating system. Both on Android and Chrome, we’re going to focus this I/O on all of the kinds of things we’re doing for developers, so that they can write better things. We will show how Google services are doing amazing things on top of these two platforms.
As Android head, what are your marching orders from Larry Page?
Larry wants to make sure we are driving innovation and doing amazing things for users and developers. That’s what I want too. So there’s a melding of minds– his marching orders are, “Please go and do Google-scale things.”
Finally, you had a pretty full plate with Chrome and Apps, and now you’re handling the world’s biggest phone platform in addition. How are you managing?
I have a secret project which adds four hours every day to the 24 hours we have. There’s a bit of time travel involved.
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