In an interview, Google's Pichai speaks about the road ahead for Android, wearable devices and partners
Mumbai: In March 2013, Chennai-born P. Sundarajan, better known as Sundar Pichai, shot to fame when Google Inc.’s chief executive officer (CEO) Larry Page announced that he would assume a very crucial role at the company—that of handling the Chrome browser, operating system (OS) and apps business, and filling the shoes of Andy Rubin, the architect of the Android unit. Around that time, Pichai’s name was also being mentioned as a potential co-CEO of Microsoft Corp., which eventually announced in February that another Indian, Satya Nadella, would lead the company. Reports said Pichai was cajoled to stay back by Page.
A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Pichai joined Google in 2004. He worked on Chrome at a time when people asked whether the world really needed another browser. Both Chrome and Android have made rapid strides, with the Android operating system (OS) having a market share in excess of 80%, both globally and in India.
In an interview on Monday, Pichai—in Delhi to launch three Android One phones—spoke about the road ahead for the Android ecosystem of mobile phones, wearable devices and partners, besides talking about leadership issues and why he is still with Google. Edited excerpts:
This is a real big event for India. What do you hope to achieve with Android One?
Definitely. Outside the I/O (Google’s annual developer conference), this is one of our biggest events globally. Android One is our initiative to bring high-quality smartphones to many new markets like India, which have new potential for new smartphone users. We are very excited because we are going a step forward than Android. We are providing a reference platform, and a menu of choice for our OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners to choose various tested and pre-qualified components so that it’s easier to build a phone. And with that, they get the peace of mind of software backed by Google, with security and updates.
We are not only announcing the devices, but also connectivity partnerships with telecom services providers like Bharti Airtel Ltd, and our expansion to other countries in South Asia. All three devices from Micromax, Karbonn and Spice will go on sale, across India, both online and offline.
People in India are as aspiring as people globally, and this is why we wanted to provide a good and consistent experience. The question was what was the most affordable phone we could deliver, given the quality bar we had in mind.
By 2017, India will have 500 million Internet users, and Google expects many to access the Internet through smartphones. Within the next couple of years, India will become the second largest Internet user (market) in the world, and most new users will access the Internet on mobiles. And Android is powering much of this growth. In India, over the past 12 months, Android users have more than tripled. With today’s announcement (of the Android One mobiles), we expect the pace to accelerate.
And you have wearables in the offing too...
This is a very exciting segment to be in and we have barely scratched the surface. Wearables will be the next wave of computing, and they are a great addition to the smartphone experience. There are a whole new set of uses in segments like health and fitness.
Which mobile phone are you using currently?
I have about 20 devices at any given time, and switch between them. I’m constantly using the next phase of devices that are being tested, and which we plan to ship.
What’s that on your wrist now (pointing to a smartwatch-like wearable)?
This is a confidential prototype that I can’t talk about.
Android is a pretty complex ecosystem...
This is always been true of Android. It’s complicated, which is what keeps me busy. I don’t recall in the history of computing there has ever been this big an event at this scale with so many devices and so many partners. There are about 1.7 billion PCs (personal computers—desktops and laptops) in the world after about 40 years. Android will get there in a decade.
How does the supply chain work?
You can look at Android One as an a la carte menu of choices. You can pick what you want. Over time, we have a qualified choice of vendors. For example, if an OEM wants to build a 5-inch phone for the market, we will update the software, etc. We are trying to streamline this. In addition to software, we are getting involved in hardware and trying to guide the ecosystem. We are trying to reduce the complexity to make it easier to build a high-end phone.
So will there be accredited, for want of a better word, Android One suppliers?
We will have choices of vendors, but all of them would have been tested by us. With Android One, we will update the devices regularly, because we understand the ecosystem. This will give the users a base consistency experience. OEMs can still customize, but they will be secure. Android One will provide meaningful differentiation, but if an OEM wants to provide a good camera app, there’s nothing to stop it from doing so. So, we’re trying to balance both.
Do you feel you have filled the shoes of Andy Rubin well?
They were definitely big shoes to fill in. Andy had thoughtfully run it (Android) for a long time. At the same time, it was a very natural and intuitive thing for me to do. I had a very good team in place and so I felt natural. The good thing about stuff like Android is that you don’t get much time to think about such things. I felt like running a marathon at a sprint pace on a treadmill, and someone just came and made the treadmill go faster. You have one shot at it, or you fall down.
Will we see the Chrome OS and Android OS merging at some point?
We invest both in Android and Chrome. Computing is integral to people’s lives. The onus is on us to deliver more useful things to them. We have a huge opportunity across Android to make computing more useful. We are investing in both areas, and we will converge organically. In L (the new Android L release is an update that will offer Google’s new design, improved battery life, enhanced security features and smarter notifications), we are doing a lot of work on making Android and Chrome integrated with the rest of our offerings. So while there will be a unifying experience across services, Chrome OS and Android One won’t be a single OS since they have unique attributes.
But you do have competition from companies such as Apple Inc. and Microsoft, especially from the latter in the enterprise segment, for which you have Android for Work. How do you perceive this scenario?
Android One is not guided by others. It is all about where computing needs to go. We don’t take the computing landscape for granted. Competition is good and the journey to get computing to all is important. But our approach is different from our competitors. Android for Work (a platform that allows business and personal information to coexist on a single device—the technology has derived much from Samsung’s Knox) is underway. It will be a consistent base platform for companies. It’s a big initiative and we are working with a lot of partners, including Samsung.
Android One is not in lieu of Android. It is one more option that we are providing. Samsung is our largest partner. We work with them in a big way. I don’t expect any of it to change. We are complex companies with different priorities. But that’s okay.
There were reports about competitors trying to poach you. But you’re still at Google...
I’m very passionate about computing. And Google is a place where I can have a long-term vision of computing and a humbling place to be, and Larry is committed to the very long term. It’s a partnership I enjoy.
What’s your leadership style?
I believe in working with people who share your vision for making a difference. Then half your job is done. You effectively have people who share your aspiration. Bringing people like these and then empowering them. At the practical level, it’s (about) staying out of the way. When coordinating such a large ecosystem like Android, people need to share your concerns.
How do you see the future of computing?
The only constant thing about it is change. In the next few years, I think computing will be much more intelligent than it is today, and will help users in more meaningful ways.