Android Team Nabs webOS Designer — Duarte and Rubin, Together Again

The last piece of the Android puzzle appears to be in place — Matias Duarte has joined Google as user experience director for Android, according to All Things Digital. If you’ve ever witnessed or experienced the elegance of Palm’s webOS smartphone operating system, then you’ve seen Duarte’s work first-hand. His deft touch is the icing on the cake for Android, one of the fastest-growing smartphone platforms today, but Duarte isn’t new to the Google team — he had ties to Android before Google ever owned the platform.

Instead of speculating on the future, in particular what Duarte might do to revamp Android’s utilitarian interface, it’s worth looking at what he’s done in the past. Under his leadership as Palm’s VP of human interface and user experience, the webOS team created a beautiful palette for interaction between a user and a smartphone. If webOS had only offered more tools in the form of software, I never would have dumped my Palm Pre in favor of a Google Nexus One. Not a week goes by when I don’t miss the webOS interface. I’ve even gone so far as flash cooked ROMs on my Nexus One to gain the HTC Sense interface and pretty up Android, but even that pales next to webOS.

Duarte also in the past worked with members of the current Google Android team. According to his LinkedIn profile, from March 2000 to August of 2005, Duarte was the director of design for another phone maker, Danger, which like webOS, provides a slick, fun user experience in its Sidekick line of devices. Coincidentally, Danger was co-founded by Andy Rubin, but Rubin left in 2003 to start Android Inc. Two years later, Android Inc. was sold to Google, Rubin became the VP of engineering in charge of Android, and…well, the rest is history, as they say. Another bit of detail to close the Danger-Android loop — while BlackBerry phones are often the corporate norm, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page reportedly wore Danger Sidekicks on their belts as recently as 2002.

Android would have likely benefited with Duarte’s involvement from the beginning, however the platform is doing just fine even without a stellar interface. At last week’s Google I/O event, Google reported that 100,000 Android phones are activated daily, so consumers appear willing to concede some design prettiness for functionality and customization features. With that kind of momentum, Google wasn’t completely hurt by a marginal UI and in fact, the user experience is enhanced with Android 2.2, aka Froyo, which I’ve been using on my Nexus One for nearly a week.

But Froyo is no webOS. I anticipate that much of Duarte’s visual influence won’t appear on Android devices until the end of this year at the earliest. Gingerbread, the next version of Android, is already in progress, so it could be tricky to make major interface changes at this juncture. Google would be wise to allow Duarte as much input as time allows on Gingerbread, but a full revamp of the interface would be a challenging deliverable in under six months. I doubt Google is worried, though — the Android juggernaut is rolling along just fine, even if it has been battered around with the ugly stick.

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