Home >Opinion >Online-views >Why Sundar Pichai is key to Google’s future as Alphabet

Mumbai: Less than a year back, Sundar Pichai told Mint in an interview that he had “definitely big shoes to fill" when referring to his new role as Google Inc.’s senior vice-president of Android, Chrome and Apps. He had taken charge from Andy Rubin who was co-founder and former chief executive of both Danger Inc. and Android Inc and senior VP of mobile and digital content at Google until March 2013.

Those shoes have become much larger with the lean, bearded, bespectacled Chennai-born P. Sundarajan, better known as Sundar Pichai, becoming CEO of Google as its co-founders—Larry Page and Sergey Brin—announced the creation of a new holding company called Alphabet on 10 August to reflect the “smaller bets in areas that might seem very speculative or even strange when compared to our current businesses".

The low-profile Pichai first shot to fame when Page announced that the former would replace Rubin. Around that time, Pichai’s name was also being floated as a potential co-CEO of Microsoft Corp., which is now headed by another Indian, Satya Nadella. Reports, then, had suggested that Pichai was cajoled to stay back by Page. While one cannot verify this, the fact remains that Page’s bet on Pichai has only increased.

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.

When Pichai took over the Android unit, it left Page to sharpen focus on long-term strategy. The current restructing with Pichai as CEO of Google is expected to give Page and Brin more time to focus on the holding company Alphabet which will include the company’s X lab which incubates new efforts like Wing—a drone delivery effort—while growing the investment arms—Ventures and Capital.

In a letter to investors on 10 August, Page said he feels “very fortunate to have someone as talented as he is to run the slightly slimmed down Google and this frees up time for me to continue to scale our aspirations...I know Sundar will always be focused on innovation—continuing to stretch boundaries...".

The move to elevate Pichai followed the exit of chief business officer Nikesh Arora, who left Google in September 2014 to join SoftBank Corp. It also came at a time when Microsoft Corp. was sharpening focus on its mobile and cloud computing strategies—the launch of the new Windows 10 being a case in point.

Pichai, on his part, has made good progress in the products space to merit attention. Google’s success in taking the Android and Chrome stories forward is what earned him his spurs.

Pichai came to India last September to promote the company’s low-cost Android One smartphones, perhaps the first time in the history of personal computing that a global technology firm chose to launch a product in India first and take it to other countries at a later date.

Google clearly wants to be there with its Android One programme but there are challenges. Despite the fact that Google’s Android OS runs on about 80% of the world’s phones, including those in India, the company’s handset partners have together managed to sell less than a million Android One devices in India till date, according to analysts.

Another challenge is from what most thought would be an unlikely contender—Microsoft. That is till the other India-born Nadella took over as the CEO of the company and promoted cloud and open source—terms dismissed by both Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

Under Nadella’s leadership, the world’s biggest software company did the unthinkable by deploying its new operating system (OS), Windows 10, on the cloud on 29 July and labelling it as “Windows as a service", and also providing free upgrades to users of Windows 7 and 8.1.

The move brings it in direct competition with Google since consumers are increasingly doing more personal and professional work on mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and phablets, which run on free operating systems like Google’s Android and Apple Inc.’s iOS, rather than on desktops and laptops, most of which run on Microsoft’s Windows OS.

The Android platform, meanwhile, has also given companies options to choose management solutions such as MDM (mobile device management) and Windows 10 will try an offer a compelling proposition to companies to build an application environment both for desktop and mobile devices, attempting to reduce the lead that Android players have gained.

Android Auto is Google’s solution to bringing the power of the Android operating system (OS)-driven smartphone to a vehicle’s infotainment system.

India is already the second-largest mobile market in the world after China with almost a billion cellphones. It will soon have the second largest Internet population after China, and has a very huge under-25 population that has money to spend on gadgets such as phones and wearables.

Google needs India and so do Microsoft and Apple. With Alphabet, Page and Brin are demonstrating that Google is much more than what people think it is—which explains the bigger umbrella of Alphabet (play on Alpha—investment return above benchmark).

Will this strategy play out for Page and Brin?

It will be some time before things get clearer. In the meanwhile, it appears that Pichai and his Android strategy will attempt to keep Microsoft and Apple occupied with challenges, even as Page and Brin spell out what Alpabhet really means.

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