Google's Mobile Chief Andy Rubin on the Google Phone & the Androidification of Everything

Andy Rubin’s business card identifies him as the Vice President of Engineering at Google. In reality, he’s the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine’s mobile chief. From the time Google snapped up his tiny startup, Android, to today, when it officially launched the first Google Phone, Rubin (and his partner Rich Miner) have been behind virtually every mobile move made by the company.

And until very recently, Rubin had maintained that Google wasn’t going to make a Google Phone. So when news of the Nexus One first broke, I was flabbergasted that after all the denials it was actually doing so. To that end, I asked him: How is Google suddenly in the hardware business?

“Google isn’t building hardware,” Rubin said. He noted how Apple’s iPhone typically carries the tag “Designed in California,” which explicitly points to that company’s hardware roots. Not so with Google. “We are not designers and there are no hardware or industrial designers on my team,” said Rubin. Instead they leave it to companies such as HTC, which has made the Nexus One.

More Google Phones to Come

“For the first time, we’re issuing purchasing orders to the manufacturers so we are now their customers,” he added, “which means we can now have more influence on the device.” That influence is quite visible in the Nexus One, as I point out in my review. And Rubin said Google is working with manufacturers in addition to HTC that also want to benefit from the sales push on Google’s web site.

Andy Rubin with Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha at Mobilize 09

Those words won’t placate some of the company’s partners, which according to my sources are livid at Google’s decision to promote the HTC-built device, which works with T-Mobile USA’s 3G network. Motorola and Verizon , which have collectively spent close to $100 million promoting the Android-based Droid, are said to be particularly miffed at this decision to launch the Google Phone. One look at the Nexus One and no one in their right mind would even consider the Droid. More importantly, imagine competing with the company that makes the OS itself.

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“People shouldn’t focus too much on the device (Nexus One),” said Rubin. “What’s more important is the strategy behind the devices.” Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing, Google is simply “going straight to the Google customers,” he said. He believes that such a strategy could fundamentally change the way people buy cell phones — in other words, over the web. Already, as he pointed out, people are buying devices (and gadgets) online.

The way I see it, Google has a couple of major problems: It’s facing a splintering of the Android experience, thanks to the growing number of user experience efforts such as HTC’s Sense. And in order to quickly get traction in the marketplace, Google needs to attract more developers. To overcome these challenges, the company needs to seed the market with what it feels is the device that best showcases Android’s capabilities.

150,000 True Fans

Rubin hopes his company can sell, at the very least, 150,000 Nexus One devices. Why? “Because if there are that many devices out there, you are likely to run into someone with a device somewhere,” he reasoned. To be clear, that number is only applicable to the U.S., even though the device will be available in the UK, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Google won’t have any trouble selling that many devices. There are more than enough fanatical users of the company’s services, such as Gmail and Google Maps, to make that happen. The Nexus One and subsequent Google Phones will continue to be tightly integrated with Google’s services.

Cell Phone As a Platform

When I asked Rubin about some of the shortcomings of the Nexus One and of the Android platform in general, he was candid in admitting that there was still work to be done. “We could have easily seeded the developers with this new device with a higher-resolution screen, but we decided to wait till the announcement was made,” he said. Now that the device has been launched, Google, he said, was looking to aggressively woo developers. Expect it to make some major announcements on that front soon.

The world has changed, Rubin argued. Up until now, the software inside the phone and the web were two different entities living in two different worlds. What Android represents is the ethos of the web brought to the cell phone world. “As a company we iterate a lot and now you have a cell-phone platform that you can quickly iterate upon,” said Rubin. “When were you able to do that on Symbian?” Ouch! (Related: Symbian Executive Rips Into Google’s Android.)

I think that’s what makes Android such as interesting platform, as I explained in my essay, The Androidification of Everything. When I asked Rubin where Android could show up next, he said it could be anywhere — from set-top boxes to large-screen devices, even desktop PCs.

Related Research: Google’s Mobile Strategy

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