Liz Gannes

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Google Multiplatform Chief Sundar Pichai at D11 on the Evolution of Openness

Google operating system head Sundar Pichai spoke at D11 about Android’s evolution as the mobile operating system is pulled among players like Google, Samsung, Amazon and Facebook, and as computing moves onto screens everywhere and onto wearable devices.

Even as Google’s implementation of “openness” becomes more forceful as the company starts selling “stock Android” unlocked smartphones made by Samsung and now HTC, Pichai contended that Google’s true edge is its apps and cloud services running across all these different devices.

Here’s the liveblog:

Sundar Pichai is a master of many domains: Google’s Chrome, Apps and, as of just a few months ago, Android. He just oversaw a well received but somewhat mellow news-wise Google I/O developer conference.

This morning he joins us live at D11 with Walt Mossberg, where we should better get a sense of how the world’s biggest smartphone operating system will be run under Pichai, rather than Android founder and long-time leader Andy Rubin. Last year at D10, Pichai told us that even his mother wants to know why Google has two operating systems. We’ll get an update on that question. And we’ll hear about Google building an increasingly strong library of apps for other platforms, unlike its rival Apple.

Walt: You were a busy man already, but recently you became the head of Android. Why did they want to combine in one person, in you, the leadership of both operating systems and apps?

Pichai: A lot of it has to do with Andy wanting to step back. Looking at what he accomplished is pretty amazing. If you look at it from a user perspective, apps run on operating systems and the ability to bring this together from a user standpoint is a good thing.

Walt: So will you combine them?

Pichai: I look at where we are in computing and I see a huge opportunity ahead. The pace of people adopting the new personal computing platforms, phones and tablets is faster than ever before and there are more ahead. Given how well both are doing and given how important computing is, the plan is to keep them both. If you look ahead, I do see synergies, but for now we’re doing both.

Walt: What are the challenges around Android?

Pichai: The scale and scope is pretty breathtaking. The challenge is, Android is designed to be completely open, so from a Google perspective, we deeply care about the user experience — how do people use Android — so how do we have a guiding hand to get the user experience to all the people.

Walt: Because the hardware makers junk up your stuff? And Facebook creating Home. How do you take your user experience stuff and get these guys to do it when these guys are trying to differentiate?

Pichai: At Google I/O we announced a Google take on Android for Galaxy S4. We thought that was a small step in a good direction.

I’m carrying an HTC One in my pocket. This is running the core UI on Nexus phones as well.

Walt: Are you going to sell that?

Pichai: It’s going to be available on Google Play on June 26 for $599.

Walt: You’re not a mean guy, but couldn’t you be accused of Google asserting control back against the hardware guys?

Pichai: I want to be careful here. This is the strength of Android, it can be customized. But we want a sense of commonality when you switch phones.

Walt: It sounds a little Apple-esque.

Pichai: Apple does many things well. But Apple makes very few products. And we are doing this in collaboration with partners. And you will see Samsung and HTC and carrier software.

Walt: So you won’t make more Nexus devices?

Pichai: The goal with Nexus was to push forward hardware with partners. That will continue as well.

Walt: When these companies demote Google services it impacts you, because that’s how you make your money. Amazon has basically taken Android and turned it into plumbing. Is that the motive? Be honest.

Pichai: We look at where computing is today — what Kindle Fire is doing, we’d love to see them on Android and be closer partners — but in the larger context, we are trying to think about where computing is going in the next five to ten years and set up Android for that.

People are going to be wearing watches, we have Glass, sensors are being added to these devices and users are increasingly spending money and adopting them. If you go to Korea and see flexible displays in factories, it’s amazing. We want to set ourselves up to be consistent, to update across all these devices and to have a common user experience across these devices.

Walt: But you sound like the big guy in Mountain View pushing your opinion on everyone.

Pichai: People will get plenty of opportunities to differentiate. In India, with Micromax, SIM cards have permanent phone numbers for which you don’t pay anything and you can switch to get the lowest rate. That’s great.

Walt: I think Andy Rubin probably imagined that Android would have a whole bunch of hardware partners, but we have something a little different. You have Samsung, which is taking almost all the profit, and it’s really the only one with major share traction, certainly in top-of-the-line smartphones. The HTC One is great, but they had more share a few years ago. Motorola was onstage yesterday. Everyone’s share is pretty low and not many of them are making a profit. Is that a problem that this is unbalanced and that Samsung has colossal power?

Pichai: We actually owe a lot of success in Android to what they’ve done. A vast majority of their phones are based on Android, so I see a pretty symbiotic relationship, and we intend to keep it that way. Look at Intel and Microsoft, they collaborated for many years.

But a couple points to add. It is pretty vibrant, and many people are gaining share. Look at the Chinese players, India players, they are doing well.

Walt: But wouldn’t it be better to have two or three big players?

Pichai: I’m going to say this and I don’t think people will believe me, but I don’t think it matters for us. It’s not just the operating system, but it’s the services on top of it, the cloud services. Look at search, maps, YouTube — we do crazy things to make maps happen — fly planes, drive cars. And we have more coming, we have Google Now. And I think that’s where the innovation lies.

I don’t see it as a zero-sum game because the industry is exploding.

Walt: You do these cross-platform things. Apple ports nothing over to you — though Tim Cook did say the other night that he wouldn’t rule out writing an Android app, which I’d never heard.

Pichai: They did write iTunes for Windows. In Google’s DNA, we wanted to be universally accessible. The goal with search was to make it work for everyone in the world, and I think that philosophy extends today. We brought Google Now to iOS. A couple weeks from now we will launch Google Play Music All Access for iOS, the teams are working like crazy to do it.

We care about reaching users all over the world, including the five billion users who don’t have smartphones today. It’s a difference in approaches.

Walt: What about Windows 8 and Windows Phone? There’s pretty little from you. Or BlackBerry. It’s not the same as iOS.

Pichai: We want to reach as many people as possible. For platforms that don’t have that many users at scale, we have great HTML5 apps. If they get more users, we will make apps.

Walt: What are we going to be talking about at D16? I have to tell you, at D1 we saw flexible displays, and we still don’t have those. Color flexible displays are always five years out, every five years. Is it all going to be wearables? Tim Cook kept tapping his wrist, you guys are doing Google Glass.

Pichai: It’s a lot more than wearables. I have a Nest thermostat at home. If you look at a Tesla, a lot of people don’t realize they have software inside cars, and innovation will come from that. Talking about displays, you’re going to see a lot of computing around you, not just on you. I think we’ve barely scraped the surface with sensors in these devices and biosensors. I was shocked to learn a few days ago that first responders can detect possible radiation through an Android app.

Walt: Will you work on this in hardware as well as software?

Pichai: All the work we do in hardware is to push new areas forward.

Walt: But you do own Motorola.

Pichai: Dennis Woodside jokes it’s harder to deal with Android from inside Google than outside. I’m excited about Moto X, from an Android standpoint we’re excited about them, but no differently than we are about Samsung.

Audience question: Motorola is a drag.

Pichai: People said this about YouTube, but they no longer question it. At Google we can take a long-term view on these things. Something like Motorola we can evaluate on a long-term basis, look at the projects they are working on and moving manufacturing back to America, these are long-term bets.

Q: But YouTube became a critical part of the Google advertising structure. Motorola won’t do that.

Pichai: In the end, all that matters is if they make products that users love to use. I’m excited about what they are working on over the next 12 months.

Q: At Google I/O the keynote spelled out a coherent connection between your products — the Google Now presentation connected email and voice and maps. You’re giving me access to the world’s information, and for that you’re targeting ads, but I’m giving you all my info, my address, my calendar, my photos, my wallet, etc. I know Google says don’t be evil, but why shouldn’t I be just a little nervous?

Pichai: It’s a good and important question. When we build cloud services, I think it’s a huge responsibility we have when we run cloud services because there’s a lot of data.

There are three things we have to do. First, we have to give a lot of value to you. So when you walk into an airport and Google Now gives you your boarding pass, that’s great. Second, having transparency and giving users control. Walt talked about Amazon — these are open systems, and the switching costs aren’t very high. We only get to do what we do as long as we do right by users. Third, people have a choice.

Walt: How will your privacy options and protections evolve?

Can you innovate in privacy? Can you be better than Facebook and Apple?

Pichai: When we did Chrome, we did a full incognito mode. That’s one example. But we do want more things like that. There’s a lot of things from a security standpoint, from a perspective of children and parents. There’s no reason we can’t do something like guest accounts on Android.

Just to note, we lost power here at the hotel so we missed the last bit of Q&A, but we’ll post the video later today.

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