Google's campus in Mountain View is a weird place — a sprawling, flat expanse dotted with angular, gray buildings. And lots of colorful bikes. It feels like an island, a place with its own set of rules, and it's easy to feel out of joint if you don't know the handshake. In some ways it's like a corporate realization of Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zones... save for, you know, the corporation. It's the kind of place where the uniquely Silicon Valley meshing of childish whimsy and a fervent, quasi-religious work ethic is in full swing. A place where coding ideas and how-tos for relaxation are printed and hung in the men's bathrooms above the urinals. It's charming and bizarre in equal parts.
The last time I had trekked across the country and south of San Francisco was in September of 2011, to see the Android team's new flagship phone and a version of its operating system that was set to change the face of the line completely. Those products were the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0), important releases for Google that proved the company had started to embrace design and user experience as much as its competition had. That time around, I spent a few hours with Android's head of user experience — the colorful Matias Duarte — to explore the new look and feel of the software, hear his reasoning behind bold decisions like the in-house-designed Roboto font, and play with the Samsung-produced phone.
This trip was a little different. I was there to see what was coming next for the Nexus line and Android, but I didn't know exactly what I was going to see. And this time, lots of key players wanted to talk not just about hardware and software, but about where the company goes from here. Players like Android head Andy Rubin, director of product management Hugo Barra, and of course, Matias.
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It was raining the morning I arrived. Miserably. Instead of being ushered into a drab conference room, Google reps led me and a Verge video crew into a new Android building, a recently updated block of open working spaces that had all sorts of incongruous flair inside, like a Formula 1 race car alongside quirky, space-age furniture that was never quite comfortable to sit in.
I expected to see a new phone, and there had been rumors of a tablet, but otherwise I knew little else about my visit. My first meeting of the day was with Andy Rubin, but when it came to products, Duarte was the team member who met our group in a long glass-walled conference room with a stack of black boxes in hand. As usual, he bounded into the room with the kind of buzzy, restless energy that can be infectious if you spend time with him. He was wearing an outlandish, colorful button-down shirt. It looked liked 80's MTV being watched on a broken television. Loud. It was well-matched to the grin he had on his face as he laid a handful of oddly shaped objects wrapped in black cloth on the table in front of him.
He unwrapped one of the objects, a long rectangle, a familiar shape. The Nexus 4. When I first see it, I’m not wholly surprised. I’ve seen it before; it's been leaked numerous times and even reviewed early by a Belarusian blog. The new Nexus is an iterative device, one which looks a lot like the Galaxy Nexus if you only give it a casual glance. When I initially saw photos of the phone, I disliked it — but up close the details are apparent, and the details do make a difference. It's more refined than I thought it would be, utilizing Gorilla Glass on the front and back, and wrapped around the sides by a soft-touch band with chamfered edges. "I think the previous devices... the technology wasn’t there, and we weren’t able to push ourselves hard enough," Matias tells me. The phone is solid and satisfying to hold, and the backplate glitters with a holographic grid that's subtly playful. I ask Duarte if he's worried about the glass breaking, but he assures me they've built the housing to protect the display and back. We'll see.
The phone is made by LG, and specs-wise, it's top of the line. Its 1280 x 768 LCD display looks stunning — on par with the superb One X screen. Inside there's a Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU clocked to 1.5GHz, which Barra says makes it "the fastest phone on the planet right now."
The company will sell an 8GB, unlocked version for $299, and a 16GB version for $349.
"LG completely blew us away with the technology that they brought to us."
When I ask Patrick Brady — who runs the engineering team that helps Android partner with manufacturers — how the company landed on LG for the phone, he was effusive about their hardware prowess. It was something I'm not used to hearing about the Korean company, which has released a handful of disappointing phones in the US recently. "We really liked what LG was doing with a couple different technologies, specifically around inductive charging, and some of their display technologies," Brady told me. "The devices we saw them bringing out were really top notch and looked like a great hardware platform for us to showcase the next version of Android." Duarte agrees. "Working with LG was pretty awesome because they completely blew us away with the technology that they brought to us."
Alongside the new phone, Matias gleefully shows me a new inductive charging dock, a quarter-sphere that magnetizes the phone in place while juicing. If it looks and acts like the Touchstone dock that Palm released with its ill-fated Pre, no one should be surprised. Duarte was, after all, one of the masterminds behind webOS and its related devices.
Unfortunately for Google, the Nexus 4's most defining technological feature — at least for the moment — may be more about what it doesn't have than what it does. That is, it lacks LTE, which here in the US makes it a step behind other phones in its class. How can this be a rival to the iPhone 5 when it's using last generation's networks? It's a complicated issue which Rubin was eager to talk about.
"We certainly have a desire to offer devices on every carrier on the planet," he told me. "The tactical issue is GSM vs. LTE. A lot of the networks that have deployed LTE haven't scaled completely yet — they're hybrid networks. They'll do their old thing and they'll do LTE, which means the devices need both radios built into them."
"We want to make sure the devices are available for every network on the planet."
But there's more. It's not just a technical issue for Google. I can hear it in the way Rubin talks about the landscape of the wireless industry.
"For now we're gonna sit back and watch those networks evolve. Two radios in a device right now certainly raises the cost, and diminishes battery life." This point seems to frustrate him. "When we did the Galaxy Nexus with LTE we had to do just that, and it just wasn't a great user experience. It's possible to do it right, but that's not where we'll put our resources initially. Tactically, we want to make sure the devices are available for every network on the planet."
The sentiment makes some sense. The global subscriber base of LTE users is still tiny, even with a massive uptick in the US over the past year.
In other words, the economics are bad for Google. The company is selling an unlocked version of the phone with T-Mobile on contract, but my sense is that they're reluctant to work with other carriers that ask for more control over devices. That may be because Google's experience with Verizon and the Galaxy Nexus has clearly not been ideal — the carrier's restrictions have made it hard for the company to keep the phone updated with the latest software. I personally know a lot of unhappy Galaxy Nexus owners who've had to sit on the sidelines for months at a time while their HSPA+ brethren see devices updated on Google's schedule.
It's not obvious whether I'm seeing politics at play, or something bigger and deeper. Something more core to what Google wants to be as a company.
"When we started out we had this insight that there were no real open platforms in the industry. We started out a little behind the curve with [Android] 1.0, but now I think we're pretty competitive. It's hard, because the industry is changing so fast," Rubin tells me.
"In the end, it's really good for consumers, but it's hard work... it's basically a hits business. You have to add features and functionality and hope that consumers fall in love with them."
He says that you never really know if it’s working or not, but you just have to keep plugging away, hoping users embrace the stuff you make. It's a matter of looking back at your track record and hoping you scored alright.
I asked him what he thought his track record is, but he didn't dare to guess. "You tell me!" he replied with a laugh.
"Consumers are buying into ecosystems, and they're becoming aware that they're buying into ecosystems," Andy told me. "Google's is open, and it's the cloud."
And it's true. No other platforms let you build your own app store or music store or book store; Android eschews ecosystem lock-in in favor of something else. Users can download MP3s and applications from Amazon, or books from Barnes & Noble. Google has a totally different model, which Rubin embraces wholeheartedly. He was vocal about it in a way I'd never heard, actually.
"If you look at how Google evolved, it's an ad company, so the thing that's funding everything in this building is ads. As long as we're competitive in the services that we're offering and people love us, the ad business works." He lights up when he talks about it. "So it creates an incredible amount of pressure for me and my team to keep creating these hits. If consumers love those products, they'll choose our ecosystem and I'll do fine. I can offer those products for free, because I have an ad based business."
"I don't control every device. It would be wrong for me to control every device."
There's another side to that freedom, though. Google may be able to embrace openness and work with lots of partners, but that comes at a price.
I ask Rubin why Apple is so good at controlling its platform, while Android has seemed to be flailing at times. Apple is on its own release schedule, it offers phones with no bloatware, and has no (or few) restrictions about what you can do with your device. I mention the fact that Android is a constant source of ridicule during iOS presentations because of its fractured update cycle. "Our industry is a lot different than Apple's industry," Rubin says flatly.
"I have a bunch of manufacturers building devices based on Android, and I don't control every device. It would be wrong for me to control every device because it wouldn't be helpful." Openness, the double-edged sword. "We're really at the mercy of the OEMs and the operators in terms of what gets in devices."
Back at the table
"We have to have this screen — it’s gorgeous."
Matias isn't done. He has a large, rectangular box with SAMSUNG stamped on its lid. I think I know what's coming.
He shows me the Nexus 10, a larger tablet manufactured by — yes, Samsung — with a screen that rivals the resolution of the 3rd and 4th generation iPad. It's a 2560 x 1600 PLS (plane-to-line switching) display. And I have to say, it looks incredible. Text is crystal clear, graphics are vibrant. The viewing angles are tremendous. "We knew we wanted that screen, and early on, we said, 'we have to have this screen — it’s gorgeous.'" Patrick tells me.
The tablet itself isn't bad looking either. In fact, it's nice looking. Made from a single piece of plastic and treated with a subtly textured coating, it feels good in your hand too. "The housing is plastic, injection molded plastic, and it has to be in order to achieve the weight that we wanted," Matias tells me, grinning. It's super thin, and though it's got a 16:9, 10.055-inch display, it feels smaller and lighter than other tablets in this class. I joke with Matias that usually people try to cover up the fact that they built their device with a plastic housing. "But this is a beautiful piece of plastic," he jokes back.
The price isn’t bad; $399 for a 16GB version of the tablet. But there's one problem — Google doesn't have a very good story for a larger tablet. What are consumers supposed to do with a 10-inch Android device, a platform that still has a thin selection of tablet-specific applications? Barra says they’re building it so developers will come. “Part of the reason why we’ve invested significantly in building what you’re holding [the Nexus 10] is exactly so that we have more and more motivation for the developer community.”
Rubin seems to think the tablet story has actually just started to come together with the Nexus 7. "We're gaining marketshare in tablets; our marketshare is surprisingly high," he says, asking Google reps in the room to find hard numbers for me (they never do). "I think fundamentally we're doing okay. When we did the Nexus 7, we pushed to bring the OS up to spec, and I think we did a pretty good job. Up until then I was really concerned that we didn't have the ecosystem right for tablets."
Matias is more bullish. "One of the reasons I feel confident about Nexus 10 delivering a tremendous amount of value out the gate is because already since we launched Nexus 7, we’ve seen so many more apps responsive to screen sizes across all form factors."
"Additionally, one of the biggest reasons that people want a tablet of this size is the content, and we’ve got a great content story, we’ve got magazines, we’ve got movies, and of course all of the Google apps — all of the Google services — which are pretty darn well optimized for this form factor."
There is one killer feature I think may attract some attention here. Google is introducing multiple user logins for the Nexus 10 — a new part of Android 4.2. And it works well. It’s fast, it’s easy. And if you have kids that don’t mind fighting over a tablet, or a spouse who only needs it part time, it’s like getting multiple tablets for the price of one.
Always be iterating
Google loves betas, but sometimes you get tired of the work-in-progress
And that brings me to the other part of this story, and it's not about the hardware, or even about the ecosystem really. It's about the work Google is doing in software — what I think might be the most exciting work in mobile operating systems at the moment.
As a company, Google has been quick to launch and quick to kill. Witness duds like Buzz or Wave — products that could never come out of beta, never seemed to tell a good story or make a case for themselves. Android had felt like a beta for a long time, really almost everything prior to version 4.0. Google loves its betas, but sometimes you get tired of the work-in-progress. Sometimes you want the real thing.
With Ice Cream Sandwich, I think the Android team took a giant leap forward, not just over some of the competition, but over itself, in a way. It took Android out of beta. It made it real.
Jelly Bean — released just this June — was another step in the right direction, adding more polish and refinement to an already mature product, and the newest release seems to be keeping the pedal down nicely.
The Android team has snuck in a bunch of other welcome, clever additions too. Gmail will finally scale messages down to fit within a single view (something the iPhone has done since day one), and you can now swipe to archive or delete messages. A "quick settings" menu (brightness, volume, airplane mode, battery life, and more) is accessible from anywhere on the phone with a two-finger gesture on the notifications bar (or a tap on the icon when your notification window is down), which will end probably 75 percent of most users' visits to the settings list.
And that's to say nothing of big updates to Google Now, which just got much smarter by picking up beacons from email like flight and hotel confirmations and baking that data into your notifications, or the tweaks to the Play Store, which now has an entertaining discovery tool called Music Explorer that legitimately makes finding new music easier.
Oh, and you can access widgets from the lock screen, meaning constant, quick views of the data you use most, without having to jump into an app or your homescreen. Another addition that just makes sense.
What surprised me most during the demo was how user-focused everything seemed to be. How determined the Android team was to not just make tweaks for the sake of tweaking — a problem I think it's had in the past — but to make changes because they improve the experience for average customers.
It's not a perfect story, of course. Google still has to figure out how to convince users that they want or need a 10-inch Android tablet. It needs to convince developers to make great apps for that tablet. It still needs to find a way to get its carrier and hardware partners onto its software release schedule. And it really, really needs to release a phone with LTE, at least here in America. A phone that real consumers can buy with a destiny owned and controlled by Google, not Verizon or AT&T. Not by anyone else.
And isn't that the promise of Android? Isn't that the promise of open? A phone or tablet that gives users something besides the status quo; that doesn’t lock them in, that doesn’t force them to compromise or capitulate? It seems like the Android team believes it, and it seems like they're trying to make it real — can make it real, as long as they stay the course.
"The minute I start churning out sucky apps and sucky services, even though they're free, consumers will start picking somebody else's," Andy says hurriedly, right before our time is up. "It keeps me very honest; I just want consumers to love the products, and as an R&D guy and an engineer, it's kind of the ultimate job. Every day my job is just to come in and build products that people love. How cool is that?"
How cool indeed.