What does Sundar Pichai's new role mean for Android?
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Yesterday, Larry Page sent shockwaves through the tech world by abdicating a big portion of his responsibilities to Sundar Pichai. Pichai is now the head of (most) Google products, while Page will focus more on the business side and "moonshots". In many ways, this move has made Sundar Pichai into the second most powerful man at Google. Obviously, CEO Larry Page stays on top; Eric Schmidt is the executive chairman, but is basically an adviser at this point; and, Sergey Brin is mostly dealing with his "special projects" in Google X labs.
On the other hand, this is a big step up for Sundar Pichai, who is keeping his main responsibilities as head of Android, Chrome, and Google Apps, but will also also have the heads of research, Search, Maps, Google+, commerce, and ads and infrastructure, all reporting directly to him. Larry Page decided to make this move in order to give himself more time to deal with bigger picture issues, but it also means that Pichai's attention could be pulled in many different directions, and away from his core responsibilities with Android and Chrome. This all leads to one inevitable question: what does this mean for Android?
Android's (Google) evolution
Android has been doing very well since Pichai took over from Andy Rubin in March of 2013. Obviously, the platform was already dominating sales numbers beforehand, but Pichai has had a distinct effect on the ecosystem. Pichai often gets credit for more of the business side of things, because he has a reputation as a pit bull in negotiations and has been said to strong-arm partners a bit. To that end, Pichai has been credited with many of the new rules designed to get as many devices as possible running the newest version of Android and featuring Google products more.
Google has had a longstanding rule that any device must be updated to the newest version of Android released within 18 months of when the device was released. The trouble there is that there was no time limit dictating when that update had to be pushed out. Pichai hasn't been able to directly add in time limits, but he has been able to minimize the leap that devices will have to make by instituting new rules about the minimum Android level that can be on a new device, if the manufacturer wants to include Google Apps and Play services. Basically, that means any device that has been released since July of this year has had to be running Android 4.4 if they want to include the Google layer.
Of course, instituting a new policy like this couldn't be done right away, because most of the devices that would be affected by this rule would be low-end devices. Android 4.3 was the first update under Pichai, but that was obviously in the works before Pichai took over. The first major Android update to come after Pichai took over was 4.4 KitKat bringing Project Svelte, which overhauled the system to run better on those low-end devices. But, pushing faster updates was only half of the strategy; the other side was in that Google layer that was being used as the bait.
Google Play services had begun to take over as the main form of updates to Android before Pichai took over, and he has continued that push. And, Pichai has also bet hard that Google services are the real selling point of Android for most users. Many of the most hardcore Android users love to talk about the customization options, and the openness. But, most casual users have much more straightforward needs: email, calendar, web browsing, maps, YouTube, some messaging, and maybe even a game or two. Most of those things are all the purview of Google Apps; and, given that Chrome is the most popular browser, Gmail is one of the top email clients, Google Maps is arguably its best in class, and of course, YouTube is YouTube. So, Pichai's bet probably was a good one, and telling considering his new position as head of all of those products, except for YouTube.
Android 5.0 is on the way soon, and it further shows another tent-pole of Pichai's work, which has been to give users more reason to enjoy the Android platform and not just the apps it runs. Part of that is Project Volta, which will help to boost battery life, but the piece that will carry more weight on a daily basis is Material design. The visual aesthetics of Material design can't be attributed to Pichai; the credit there goes to Mathias Duarte. But, Material design isn't just a UI overhaul, it houses many of the 5,000 new APIs that exist in Android 5.0, which allow developers and manufacturers to integrate apps deeper into Android. This means a more seamless experience, and one that feels more like you're using Android rather than a series of apps.
Lastly, the expansion of Android under Pichai can't be ignored either. Android Wear has launched, and is looking good; Android TV is set to erase (or at least attempt to erase) the failure of Google TV; and, Android Auto has looked good in its initial incarnations.
All roads lead to Android
Android has seen a ton of changes since Pichai took over as head of the platform just 19 months ago. But, now his attention could be pulled away by more responsibilities. When people talk about Steve Jobs and Apple, one of the common themes is the idea that Jobs instilled a specific ethos to the company. He supplied the "DNA" of what Apple would continue to be. In reality, he created a brand image and hired the right people to continue that image. As Pichai's responsibilities grow at Google, he will obviously have less time to dedicate directly to Android; but, he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would let things slip through the cracks. Frankly, it's hard to imagine Larry Page giving this much power to someone who would. So, moving forward, it will be a test of the ethos that Pichai has installed with the Android team and the talent tasked with carrying out the vision.
There is another possibility though. It could well be that Larry Page sees all future Google roads leading through Android, which is not a crazy idea. Ads are still the main source of Google revenue, and Search is likely still the premiere product with Google Now becoming the connective layer to Google products in a way that Vic Gundotra may have once envisioned for Google+. Android and mobile are at the center of this evolution; and, as mentioned before Google Apps are at the center of Pichai's vision for Android. Google as a whole is planning big things for Android as evidenced by the fact that for the first time, Google has been playing TV ads directly for Android itself.
The "And you" ad has been playing everywhere, and if you were to jump from that ad to the "Be Together. Not the same" ad, you start to see the idea that could be behind Pichai's new position. The Android platform is expanding and it is building itself up on various hardware through the power of the Google experience. Android is quickly becoming the main hub of Google's business, so it makes perfect sense for its head to also be the man who other product execs report to. It's not hard to imagine that the other execs were already starting to go to Pichai with issues, because going to Page would end with bringing Pichai into the discussion anyway. That's standard inefficiency that likely drove Page crazy; so, the logical fix is to move Pichai up the ladder, and make him the go-to before issues escalated to reach Page himself.
Ultimately, it may end up being that Sundar Pichai will have his attention pulled away from Android to a certain extent. But, more and more, it seems like all Google products are inexorably tied to Android, and those connections will only grow stronger as Android continues expanding to more devices and screens. You can't have an Android Wear smartwatch without Search or Maps. If you're making an Android TV, you need YouTube and Google Play Games. You can't have Android Auto without Maps and Play Music. Google has long been known for Search and ads, but Search has already been installed as a core piece of Android, and ads are everywhere anyway. Google products are not all the same, but they are all going to be moving forward together, as part of Android.
img src: The history of Android