Ina Fried

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Google Mobile Boss Andy Rubin on Apple, Microsoft and Tablets

At AllThingsD, we like to eat our dessert first.

That’s why we’re kicking off AsiaD with a little Ice Cream Sandwich. Google mobile chief Andy Rubin is taking the stage with Walt Mossberg to talk about the future of Android, just hours after unwrapping the latest version here in Hong Kong.

Rubin is just one of the many mobile-focused speakers here at the show, which will also include talks with Windows Phone head Andy Lees, along with executives from Samsung and HTC. Rubin is due to start speaking just after 6 pm local time. (That’s 3 am for you West Coast types, and 6 am on the East Coast.)

5:50 pm: Folks are just getting their seats, so feel free to do the same.

5:58 pm: Two-minute warning. And you have no time-outs left.

6:02 pm: Don’t worry folks. Still here. Just finishing up my bubble tea as the guests get seated. You probably have a couple minutes to grab a beverage yourselves, if you want.

6:08 pm: Um, still waiting.

What to do.

“Siri: Do you know a joke?”

“Two iPhones walk into a bar … I forget the rest.”

6:11 pm: Welcoming remarks are starting.

6:13 pm: The chief secretary of Hong Kong is on stage, and there is a very loud lion dance making its way through the tables in the convention hall.

6:17 pm: Lions still dancing. There will be ice cream. I promise.

6:19 pm: Walt Mossberg takes the stage.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever followed that kind of act,” Mossberg said.

6:19 pm: Apple’s Phil Schiller won’t be appearing at the conference, Mossberg notes, as he needs to be at the Steve Jobs memorial at Apple’s campus on Wednesday.

6:22 pm: And now, Andy Rubin …

6:26 pm: Mossberg: You had a big event here in Hong Kong as well today.

Rubin: With our partner Samsung, we launched the Galaxy Nexus, which is our next-generation lead device with Android 4.0 — Ice Cream Sandwich.

6:27 pm: Rubin is explaining what makes a “Nexus” phone, as opposed to any old Android phone. Basically, Google gets deeply involved in the design, working with the hardware maker and the chipmakers.

Rubin notes there are over a million lines of code in Android.

“You don’t want to build it generically and then throw it over the fence.”

“I look it as a reference design,” Rubin said of the lead device.

6:29 pm: Rubin explaining how Ice Cream Sandwich reunifies the tablet and phone versions of Android.

Android 4.0 will support both phones and tablets.

There’s a notion of fragments, introduced in Honeycomb, that lets apps run in different configurations for screen sizes.

Walt noted that Rubin said a year ago that Android was still for geeks, and maybe their spouses. Honeycomb was a little better about surfacing the hidden technology, Walt said. How does Ice Cream Sandwich stack up?

Rubin said the company has always been trying to improve the user interface.

“We want it to be intuitive,” Rubin said, saying Android devices should be an extension of people’s daily lives, and the company aims to keep getting closer to that goal.

“Ice Cream Sandwich is the best we’ve ever done,” Rubin said.

6:34 pm: Rubin is now showing off the just-introduced Galaxy Nexus, which bears both the Samsung and Google logos. It’s got a Texas Instruments processor and a sensor to tell how high off the ground it is, among other hardware features.

One of the features is the ability to unlock the phone using facial recognition (a demo that didn’t go so hot).

6:37 pm:

“We’re going to try it again here,” Rubin said. “Let’s see if this works.”

And it does.

“Hi, Andy,” the phone said.

Rubin notes the technology came from a recent acquisition.

6:38 pm: Now Walt is giving it a try.

“Sorry, don’t recognize you,” the phone tells Walt.

The Android phone is actually using the graphics chip on the phone rather than the main processor to do the facial recognition, Rubin notes.

Now Rubin is showing the phone doing some real-time effects on the camera, distorting Walt’s face in various ways.

“This will all reflect on the review,” Walt said.

The effects are similar to those found in desktop software for a while now.

6:42 pm: Let’s talk about competition.

Who’s your main competition?

Rubin doesn’t really answer directly.

“Maybe you need the translator,” Walt quipped.

“I guess my competitors would be anybody who is in the platform business. Apple builds an operating system. Microsoft builds an operating system.”

What’s your sense about RIM?

“I think they’re very smart. They’re Canadian.”

Rubin said he went there once and they were completely vertical, building their own antennas and even building whole phones in Canada. “There’s a lot to be said about that approach,” he said, noting it eliminates a lot of dependencies.

“The problem with it is it limits agility,” he said.

I think it is real easy to retool. They acquired QNX so they have some future they can seize.

6:46 pm: Are you, as a competitor of Apple, thinking they will lose a step with the death of Steve Jobs?, Walt asked.

“I don’t think anything like that,” Rubin said. “I used to work at Apple,” he said, noting it was his first big job.

Rubin noted that Apple still has the same ingredients that have made it a success, though it will miss Steve’s leadership. “Now it is time for some of the other guys to step up.”

6:48 pm: Asked about Windows Phone, Rubin noted that Microsoft did what smart companies do when they are late or behind in a market, which is to innovate on a different axis.

“I think that’s what Microsoft did with their Metro UI,” he said. “I think it is a bold move.”

That said, “from my taste and my perspective, it could be very dangerous for Microsoft,” he said. He suggested that Windows Phone leaves less room for creativity and for software and hardware makers to express themselves.

“If you want to take over the screen, you should be able to take over the screen,” Rubin said.

Rubin said it is kind of like what happened on the PC, which left hardware makers creating something of a commodity.

6:52 pm: “How come Android tablets have completely flopped in the marketplace?”

“I wouldn’t say completely flopped,” Rubin said.

Rubin said there are a little more than six million Android tablets out there running Google’s services, not counting other tablets (such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color)

“Six million is pretty healthy, but it is not 30 million,” he said. “Obviously, we need to get there.”

6:55 pm: Walt: When are you going to sell music?

“Today, it’s not there,” he said.

6:56 pm: “I feel we are close,” Rubin said of being able to offer some sort of music acquisition service — sales or subscription. “It will have a little twist … it won’t be just selling 99-cent songs.”

But others have gone in during the time that Google was unable to reach a deal with Hollywood and the record companies, Walt noted, point out that device makers such as Samsung now sell content on their own. “Obviously, people went in and they filled the gap,” Rubin said.

6:59 pm: Walt asked about tablets such as the Kindle Fire and Grid 10 that use Android under the hood, but do their own thing and hide Android from the user.

How do you feel about that? Is it good for Google?

Rubin: “I create an open operating system and somebody uses it. Am I okay with that?”

On Kindle Fire: “I think it is fine for Google. It is Android. It adheres to the APIs of Android.”

“I don’t view this as some kind of walled garden.” Rubin noted that Google can even create programs for Amazon tablets.

“Maybe this is going to solve the tablet problem,” he said.

7:03 pm: Walt is trying to get Andy Rubin to confirm that Galaxy Nexus will launch on Verizon first. Rubin doesn’t bite.

As for when Ice Cream Sandwich will show up on other Android devices, Rubin said it will be a matter of weeks after the Samsung device.

7:04 pm: Why should other Android makers not worry about Google buying Motorola?

Rubin: Part of it is clearly about patents. I’m focused on delighting a lot of consumers, but there are other folks focused on putting me out of business.

As for the hardware business, Rubin reiterated that a Google-owned Motorola would operate “at arm’s length” from the Android unit.

7:07 pm: On to Q&A.

First question is on how Google will protect app developers and others from patent issues.

Rubin: “In general, if we achieve patent peace where people aren’t suing each other for competitive advantage … that’s my goal.”

Rubin notes that there are mechanisms to license the patents for GSM and for MP3 and that would be a nice model to see for smartphones.

“It would be beautiful, in my view, if there was one clearinghouse to get all these rights,” he said.

7:11 pm: On Android Market

“It’s getting a lot better,” Rubin said, noting that the site finally uses Google’s actual search technology to find more relevant apps. “It’s going to get better exponentially very soon.”

Rubin acknowledged it hasn’t always been as good as it should have been.

“I recognize that we were a little behind.”

7:13 pm: Rubin on HTML5:

It’s not yet an alternative to building separate apps for different mobile operating systems.

“That would be the holy grail,” Rubin said, but it’s probably a way off.

7:17 pm: One of the pain points of Honeycomb has been the lack of tablet apps. When are we going to see ICS coming to tablets?

Rubin said he doesn’t think there should be apps specific for a tablet, necessarily. With Ice Cream Sandwich, Rubin said, all apps will run great on tablets.

Going forward, I think it would be wrong to make that distinction.

7:23 pm: Last question. Going to the digital home, what about televisions? How can we possibly see a single app working on phones, TVs and tablets?

Google TV is a product that exists, and it’s Android. The 2.0 version of Google TV is Honeycomb-based. There are differences, he said. TV is relatively passive. But Android can tie all of those together.

7:25 pm: And that’s a wrap for the keynote. I’ll have more later from Andy Rubin.

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