Disconnect: why Andy Rubin and Android called it quits

Rubin created Google's mobile operating system and outgunned the iPhone. So why is he moving on after almost a decade at the helm?

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Last week, Google announced that Andy Rubin, co-creator and chief of Android, a job he’s held since 2005, would be stepping aside to join a new secret project. The decision came as a surprise, even to his coworkers inside Google. However, the influential hacker-entrepreneur had already had a requiem, nine months earlier.

There has been speculation over whether Android is called "Android" because it sounds like "Andy." Actually, Android is Andy Rubin — coworkers at Apple gave him the nickname back in 1989 because of his love for robots. Android.com was Rubin’s personal website until 2008.

So when a rumor started last June that Rubin was leaving Google to join a small startup called CloudCar, it set off a panic. Given Rubin’s stature and his position in CEO Larry Page’s inner circle, the gossip spread quickly and people gushed over his legacy. "Wow, what a job Andy has done at Google the past few years," wrote Silicon Valley gadfly Robert Scoble.

Actually, Android is Andy Rubin — coworkers at Apple gave him the nickname back in 1989

Rubin put the rumor to bed quickly, explaining that CloudCar was a friend’s startup working out of his Los Altos incubator. "I don't have any plans to leave Google," he posted on Google+, with a nod to the upcoming 2012 Google I/O conference. "See you on the 27th!" At I/O, Rubin took the stage, his name still synonymous with Android.

Then on Thursday, Page announced that Rubin had "decided it’s time to hand over the reins and start a new chapter at Google." Rubin echoed this in a letter to developers. "I am an entrepreneur at heart," he wrote.

Rubin wasn’t leaving Google, but something had changed. Android had outgrown Rubin, and Rubin had grown tired of Android.

Running the course

In under a decade, Rubin took Android from an idea on a whiteboard to the most popular smartphone platform on the planet. More than 750 million devices have been activated, more than 25 billion apps have been downloaded, and the little green Android robot now has brand recognition approaching Apple’s apple.

But having won the popularity contest, Android’s new challenges are thornier and its path forward less clear. Android’s share of the tablet market still lags behind the iPad, and the Android @ Home effort, an initiative to get developers to build apps to automate home devices, has sputtered.

Even though three Android phones are now sold for every iPhone, Google has still yet to fully figure out how to leverage the open system to its advantage. While Android has been great for handset makers, especially Samsung, it’s failed to advance the Google ecosystem as much as hoped or make much money. "Ironically, in some cases Microsoft may be making more money off Android than Google, because of patent payments," said Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg. In other instances, Android has completely run away from Google. Amazon's Kindle Fire is built on Android, but you’d never know it — and the Amazon app store competes with Google’s.

Android’s new challenges are thornier, its path forward less clear

Rubin is a visionary and an architect, a hands-on hacker who worked as an engineer at Apple and a manager at Microsoft before founding and leading two innovative and successful startups, Danger and later Android. Praise for Rubin tends to revolve around his talent for getting things started. "I love working with Andy because he's brilliant at setting big goals for the seemingly impossible – and then mobilizing small teams to achieve them," Urs Hölzle, senior vice president of infrastructure at Google, said in a statement to The Verge. "He's a great talent, very inspiring. I'm not sure anyone else could have made Android happen."

But Rubin was unwilling or unable to make big industry partnerships that could turn Android into a moneymaker for Google. While Samsung got rich off shipping phones built on Android, Google’s brand faded into the background and its influence was chipped away. "Andy is a solo artist who likes to run in a direction and ignore everyone else," says one mobile industry executive who's worked with Rubin. "When Android grew to a certain size and required interaction, collaboration and partnership both inside and outside of Google, he became frustrated and incapable of managing the business. Android has outgrown Andy and honestly, I don't think he knows where to take it next."

The Danger years

Rubin and Danger are credited with making one of the first smartphones, a web-enabled device with its own app ecosystem that debuted in the US as the T-Mobile Sidekick. A hot, well-funded startup in the midst of the dot-com crash, Danger felt like an exceptional club house. The company had a Sparrow electric car, a Segway, and a version of the Pole Position arcade racing game, on top of whatever new color-screen phone Rubin had picked up that week. Rubin’s hackerish friends, including Rich Miner, Steve Perlman, and even Steve Wozniak would stop by.

Rubin was nudged out by his board in favor of a gray-haired deal maker

For four years, Rubin was Danger’s fierce and tireless leader. "He was stressed out a lot but did a great job of hiding it," said a former colleague who worked closely with Rubin at Danger. "I also saw him work late into the night, looking like he was on the verge of collapse, and come in early the next morning in a clean white shirt, ready for an interview or business meeting."

Danger was a technical powerhouse with a product far ahead of its time, but it remained a business underdog. "They struggled to get other companies to do what they wanted," Rubin’s former colleague said. In 2003, Rubin was nudged out by his board of investors in favor of an ex-military, telecom industry veteran, a gray-haired deal maker named Hank Nothhaft.

"We had a pretty well-defined plan that Andy was super instrumental in putting in place," said Joanna Rees, a managing director at VSP Capital and one of Danger’s early investors. "It was really at a phase where it was about execution. There was already innovation in the product. That’s why we brought Hank in – because he knew how to do those big deals and big partnerships. Hank was a CEO who could really take the company to the next level."

Rubin left shortly after to start Android. "I remember saying, ‘he’s not going to stay long,’" Rees recalled.

The Google years

Rubin has been at Google since 2005, when Larry Page bought the fledgling Android. Sergey Brin kept his distance from Android, saying he didn’t understand mobile; Eric Schmidt had a similar reaction. But Page fell in love with Rubin’s vision of an open mobile operating system and the prospect of a global movement led by Google that would force innovation on phones in spite of the stodgy carriers.

Page was utterly convinced that Android was perfect for Google, but Rubin wasn’t sure at first. He "found Google crazy" because of its loose corporate structure, he told Google chronicler Steven Levy in the book In the Plex. Rubin also famously garaged his limited edition German sports car, which would have been considered ostentatious by Google’s populist standards.

There was a veil of secrecy around the acquisition. "In what could be a key move in its nascent wireless strategy, Google has quietly acquired startup Android Inc.," reported Businessweek at the time. "Little is known about its work."

Under Rubin, Android’s outreach efforts largely fell short

Rubin joined Google’s top leadership team as senior vice president of mobile and digital content, where he led product development, spearheaded partnerships, and got into it with Steve Jobs. Under Rubin, Android’s outreach efforts largely fell short. The Open Handset Alliance, the industry-wide leadership group for Android, launched with fanfare, but has since fallen into the background as major OEMs have fragmented the platform. Other big partnerships included the Android Update Alliance, which was supposed to coordinate releases between carriers but has had limited success. Rubin also sponsored the Motorola acquisition, a messy, costly undertaking that has yet to pay off for Google: CFO Patrick Pichette has said the company inherited a product roadmap that doesn't "wow," and the much-ballyhooed patents are caught up in an international controversy over how tech standards can be litigated.

Google won’t say how many employees are working on Android now, but it’s grown massively since Rubin brought over his team of eight. (Cofounders Chris White, and Nick Sears are no longer at Google; the fourth founder, Rich Miner, transferred to Google Ventures.) Meanwhile, more than 200 Google employees report themselves as working on Android or Google Play on LinkedIn; the actual number is likely much higher. A former employee said the team was "around 200 to 250" in 2010 and "has grown since then." By comparison, Rubin managed just over 100 employees at Danger before he stepped down as CEO.

Handing over the reins

Google is keeping mum about Rubin’s next move, but it’s been speculated that he will join the company’s edgy R&D lab Google X. Rubin is an inventor; he is credited on more than 11 patents and a slew of patent applications. He’s also obsessed with hardware, especially the kind that moves or takes pictures. While at Microsoft, he’d slip away from the corporate drudgery to tinker in his Los Altos lab under the neon glow from a sign in the window: "Robots that kill."

While at Apple, he hacked together a system to display stock quotes to everyone at the company; while at Danger, he brought in a photography rig and personally put together the images for a rotating Sidekick graphic for the website. "His car had gadgets all over it, it had this thing where it was filming from the back," Rees recalled. "His house is full of gadgets. He likes cool things that you can touch."

"He likes cool things that you can touch."

While Rubin moves on to his next chapter, Android is being put under senior vice president Sundar Pichai, who also oversees Chrome and Apps. There’s long been speculation about merging Chrome OS, Google’s desktop operating system, with Android, its mobile operating system. It makes sense – the Chrome web store, for example, could easily be integrated into Google Play, and the lines between desktop and mobile are blurring with products like the Pixel, a laptop with a touchscreen. Google has acknowledged that the two operating systems might merge over time, but has denied that such a merger is imminent.

20130318-15545574--sundar-pichai-560

Sundar Pichai.

Page wants to streamline Google’s products under a cohesive strategy, but that day still may be far off for Chrome OS and Android. The two teams have separate roadmaps. The Android team is running at a breakneck pace under vice president of engineering Hiroshi Lockheimer, releasing software updates, bug fixes, and security changes in order to keep up with the fast-moving mobile market. A significant integration with Chrome OS would be a huge effort, and Google seems fine with having two independent operating systems, at least for now.

Assumptions of a master plan may be overstated

Pichai is said to be a calm and hyper-competent product manager who led the Chrome browser to market dominance while overseeing Apps, Google’s enterprise product. A smooth presenter and loyal lieutenant, Pichai’s experience pitching both consumer and enterprise products should serve him well as Android scales and Google attempts to monetize it. It seems likely that Pichai’s immediate efforts will be to push Android to the next level, rather than mush it together with Chrome OS. Pichai "will do a tremendous job doubling down on Android as we work to push the ecosystem forward," Page wrote.

Google I/O is only two months away. Developers, who bought up all the tickets within an hour, are now more eager than ever to hear what Google has to announce. However, assumptions of a master plan may be overstated, especially when it comes to Android. "I think Google doesn’t necessarily know what it’s going to do until Google has done it," said Gartenberg, the Gartner analyst. "I'm sure there's going to be some experimentation here."

Jacob Kastrenakes, Nilay Patel, and Chris Ziegler contributed to this report.

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