What’s next for Google’s Android chief
By Jon Fortt
Mobile platforms VP Andy Rubin talks about Android, Chrome, and the smartphone.
The second Google (GOOG) phone in the U.S. had a showcase event last week in San Francisco, and afterward I sat down with Andy Rubin, vice president of mobile platforms at Google.
I asked him about Google’s vision for the Android smartphone operating system, whether the search giant is sending mixed messages by promoting both Android and its upcoming Chrome OS, and whether Android is really a good fit for netbooks. Below is an edited transcript:
Q. Android is open and free, so anyone can put it in their devices – phones, cars, washing machines, whatever. But what uses is Google actively encouraging? Are you just focused on smartphones, or are you trying to get it on other types of devices?
A. This is kind of where open source meets business. I encourage high-volume things. A million customers? Not that interesting. Ten million? Not that interesting, but heading in the right direction. A hundred million customers starts getting interesting. So what consumer products have the opportunity to affect 100 million, 200 million, 300 million customers? There aren’t that many. What’s the most successful consumer product on the planet? People used to say the DVD. It’s the cell phone. They’re everywhere. That’s why we focused on the cell phone first – it’s the biggest volume opportunity.
Q. What other high-volume opportunities are there for Android?
A. Use your imagination. Whatever it is – it might not be something I know about today – but if it’s high volume, I’m on it.
Q. iPods are pretty high volume.
A. The iPod’s a media player and that’s a pretty high-volume consumer product. The problem with iPods, when it comes to the Internet, is that they’re not connected devices, they’re media players. And so it doesn’t move forward our desire to see a lot of consumers connected to the Internet, getting access to information and having it organized in relevant, interesting ways.
Q. Now we’ve got Pandora and other Internet radio offerings on media players though, and they seem to be taking off in popularity precisely because they’re connected. Does that change your outlook?
A. What I hope it will change is hardware manufacturers’ perspective on what features they build into their products. You’ll see more and more connected media players, media players with WiFi built into them. I think that will become an enabler from a chicken and egg perspective, of having Android in a lot of those devices.
Q. It seems netbooks could be a high-volume device, but we’ve got two messages coming from Google at the moment – Chrome OS and Android. So what do you with Android and netbooks do – do you encourage that, or are you waiting for Chrome OS to come out?
A. I certainly don’t discourage it, right? Why would I want to do that? It’s providing as many consumer products as possible with access to the Internet. I don’t care if they use Chrome, I don’t care if they use Android. As long as we’re giving people access, the engine that is Google can do its job. We’re trying to get more people on the Internet so they’re enabled to use Google services. Honestly, it’s not a religious thing. I don’t care how we do it ,as long as we do it. I truly, deeply believe that we’re helping consumers.
Q. I get the sense that you personally care about Android and its success because your work on it predates your employment with Google. But does Google really care about Android itself, or is it a means to an end – getting more people onto the Internet so they can use Google search and other products and generate revenue by doing commerce through Google? Isn’t Google just as happy about an iPhone or a Palm Pre as it would be about an Android device?
A. I think when we introduced Android, the most telling answer to that question was when [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin did a video. And he basically said, when I was a college student and Larry and I invented Google, we based it off of open source. We used Linux. And he said he feels morally that he wants to give back to the open source community because it was something that enabled Google. So he believes, obviously, in running the business. But he also believes that the business wouldn’t have even existed if it weren’t for this type of technology. So what other businesses can you create on this type of technology? And it changes Google’s role into more of a mentorship role in helping those other businesses get off the ground. I think it’s a very, very broad view, different from your traditional CFO, who’s just focused on bottom line and incrementally doing stuff. It’s not an incremental vision. It’s a many-year, long-term vision. And the fact that the guys inside this company understand that is one of the reasons Google is successful today, and will continue to be successful. And by the way, that’s the reason I agreed to come work with Google. It’s that type of leadership that, for me as an entrepreneur, it enables every one of my visions. I don’t feel blocked at all.