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Summary:

Android is complicated. Sundar Pichai, the new head of Android, has to navigate a lot of tricky relationships in order to do his job, especially as Google-owned Motorola gears up for a reboot.

Google's Sundar Pichai shows off the "Google experience" version of the HTC One at D11 Credit:Asa Mathat/D: All Things Digital
photo: Asa Mathat/D: All Things Digital

Google’s Sundar Pichai does not have an easy job: he’s now overseeing both of Google’s key computing projects — Android and Chrome — while attempting to convince everyone that Google won’t play favorites with its Motorola division. Clearly, however, not all Android partners are created equal.

Pichai’s appearance at D11 Thursday didn’t break a lot of new ground, save for the “pure Google” version of the HTC One handset that Pichai showed off to the crowd and the news that the curiously named Google Play Music All Access service is coming to iOS. He showed off the HTC One, curiously enough, in response to a question from All Things D’s Walt Mossberg about Google’s relationship with Android partners and specifically its relationship with Samsung, a company which dominates the Android world and which introduced a smaller version of its flagship Galaxy S 4 Thursday that Pichai claimed he first learned about on Techmeme this morning.

If that’s true, then Google certainly has different relationships with different partners. Later in the session, Pichai said he was “very excited” about what Motorola has planned over the next six months. While we first heard confirmation of the Moto X Wednesday, the remaining products in what CEO Dennis Woodside called “a portfolio of phones” Wednesday are not something widely known beyond the rumor mills.

There are a couple of interpretations here.

  1. Communication between Samsung and Google has dried up if the head of Android didn’t know (or didn’t care to know) that his most important partner was releasing a smaller version of its highest-profile phone until the rest of us did, the same day he was making a high-profile public appearance to show off a competitor-designed phone.
  2. Not only is Pichai aware of all the Android products that Motorola has planned for 2013, he’s had a chance to discuss the thinking behind the decisions made in designing the phones, even if the Android team isn’t doing anything special for Motorola, as both Pichai and Woodside insisted this week.
  3. This is probably most likely: Nothing has really changed and that Android continues to be a chaotic mess that Google makes a half-hearted attempt to stay on top of but which no one can really manage, given the sheer number of partners and devices involved. Google has certainly worked closely with Android partners in the past as they got their first phones out the door, including Samsung, HTC, and LG, so it’s not that surprising that Android leaders would have worked closely with Motorola as it reboots.

It’s an interesting time for Pichai and Android as he assumes the guiding role vacated by Android founder and longtime leader Andy Rubin, who Pichai said “stepped back” two months ago to pursue other interests at Google. There’s a lot of “co-opetition” in the Android world at the moment, and Pichai has the fun task of dealing with it.

  1. “Communication between Samsung and Google has dried up”

    There’s no need or reason for Samsung to share details on everything they are doing. If the new phone is just a smaller version of the S4, it may not have required any support from Google, so why share plans with a competitor’s parent company? They don’t need marketing support from Google, so what would they gain from telling Google about the mini S4?

    And why is Android a “chaotic mess”? From what perspective is that? Consumers certainly don’t think so, as they keep buying lots of Android devices. Or, is that the view from someone who thinks operating systems need to be like windows or mac os x, where there is one and only one supplier, and no variations? Android is based on Linux, which means the different implementations should be expected, as that’s the business and engineering model for open source software. I have many different Android devices, and none have suffered from the “chaos” of Android.

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    1. I addressed your first point in my other comment, but I’ve just spent two days with a bunch of people running mobile businesses, and they still feel that Android is a mess to manage from an app development perspective and a challenge for consumers to grasp that different flavors of Android can present very different experiences.

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      1. “different flavors of Android can present very different experiences.”

        That is the goal of Android device manufacturers – they want to differentiate their products, and that’s why they have their own skins. If Google clamped down, they would face a firestorm of criticism about how it’s no longer open. Instead, they are using their Nexus brand to create a standard for user experience and performance, and as they get that stock build in more devices, it’s likely more people will choose it.

        All business owners feel they are entitled to a guaranteed profit for just showing up. It’s a mess? Then get out of the business, it will be less of a mess for those who stay in. Otherwise, they should stop whining. Openness is a double-edged sword.

        If developers think it’s difficult now, they should hope Intel isn’t successful getting the x86 into android phones. That will introduce far more diversity than the different skins of the relative handful of popular vendors.

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        1. So users don’t care about keyboards with different correction algorithm or voice with different levels of recognition, what works on one device doesn’t on another. On a higher level we have different email apps with different behaviors and on the list goes on. All fine in Android land, just don’t get used to anything.

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          1. For the most part, no to both parts of that question. Maybe the geeks care, but the average user has no idea, and doesn’t even have enough experience with different keyboard correction algorithms or voice recognition to make a decision. And even if they do, that’s not an android issue, it’s a mfr issue, and that’s how it should be. Those differences are really product quality, and not android fragmentation.

            You are criticizing the diversity of applications, which all computing platforms, mobile and desktop, claim as a feature. If they all behaved the same, there would be no reason for the different choices.

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            1. LOL
              The user blames mfg if Google docs input has different spelling on every Android device they use, good one.

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  2. Rahim Hirani Thursday, May 30, 2013

    With regards to point 1, should Sundar Pichai really be on top of every Google Play certified Android device that is being released? He is in charge of three huge products at Google and probably has a lot to do.

    With regards to point 3, anyone who was paying attention to Google I/O would realise that Google have essentially nullified the fragmentation issue. Through Google Play services, Google managed to release a whole bunch of new features that were deployed automatically to 900 million devices in the space of a week, without carrier or manufacturer intervention.

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    1. As far as #1 goes, that’s sort of what I was getting at. He doesn’t know the details of Samsung’s major launches but knows the details of Motorola’s? That’s a little funny. As for point 3, I agree with you (and Kevin Tofel wrote about that here: http://gigaom.com/2013/05/16/how-google-cleverly-improved-android-without-releasing-android-4-3-at-google-io/) but I think it’s quite a stretch to say they’ve nullified this as long as native apps are still important to consumers.

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      1. Since when was the Galaxy s4 mini a major device? It’s a decidedly mid range device that carries the flagships name in hopes of encouraging sales. How many of the S3 mini did Samsung sell? It would be one thing if he was ignorant of say, the note 3′s launch… but I doubt that is true.

        As for Motorola, why would you think he would be ignorant of Motorola’s upcoming portfolio? The motorola acquisition was sponsored by Andy Rubin who’s role Sundar now occupies. It would, in fact, be surprising if he didn’t know all of Motorola’s business.

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        1. Fair enough regarding the mini, but you have to admit this is a complex business: Samsung launches an Android phone that he didn’t know about hours before he goes on at D11 to show off the Google-ified HTC One that will wind up compared against a forthcoming Google-owned Moto X phone showcased yesterday. That’s a lot of competing interests, and balancing them is a tough, complicated job. Especially when those partners are deeply skeptical of Google’s plans for Motorola: why do you think Samsung has become more and more like Amazon as far as how it uses Android?

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          1. Is Amazon releasing a Kindle Fire with stock android? I missed that announcement. :-)

            And unlike Amazon, Samsung does not sell their android devices at cost or as a loss leader, they have great margins.

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            1. Har har. If you’re as much of an Android aficionado as you seem, you know full well that Samsung is more and more these days developing its own software strategy atop Android just like Amazon did with the Kindle Fire. Witness the Galaxy S 4 launch event, when the word “Android” was mentioned a grand total of one time (maybe twice). They’ve signaled quite clearly that they want to control their own software destiny.

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            2. There are lots of wannabes out there, and maybe Samsung wants to be like Amazon, but they won’t pull it off. They don’t have the store that Amazon has. Also, as I mentioned, Amazon is willing to defer profits on their tablets (no phones from them yet), and Samsung can’t copy that.

              They have several cool proprietary features on some of their high end phones, like the stylus and the touch to transfer files capability, but I’m guessing most people who buy their phones hardly use it (I’m one of them – I have the Note II, and have only used the stylus feature to show others how cool it is)

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  3. The third in your “couple of interpretations” is what I’d bet on. Android continues to be a chaotic mess, though I’d prefix that with “creative”. As regards Samsung, by not mentioning them, Google just returned the compliment they received at the S4 launch event. So no love is lost between Samsung and Google.

    What is interesting is comparing the amount of innovation that Samsung is driving in Android vis-a-vis Google. One often gets the impression that Google would rather sit back and count the ad dollars flowing in rather than add more features or innovate on Android – because the business ambitions of Google are now truly realized. Samsung on the other hand, is still hungry – and cares for making better devices.

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