One big loss at the world's most popular smartphone platform has been followed by another. Five months after Android founder Andy Rubin left his creation to work on unspecified other projects inside Google, head of Android product management Hugo Barra quit to take a job at upstart Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi. And while there are clear potential benefits for both parties in the move — having Barra as an ally inside the explosive Chinese market could prove hugely profitable to Google — he also leaves a void at Android.
Rubin and Barra were the faces of Android
To the outside world, Rubin and Barra were the faces of Android, with Barra regularly appearing onstage at events to explain its changing look and features. Along with vice president for engineering Hiroshi Lockheimer, Rubin and Barra were seen as Android's most influential voices on product decisions, guiding Android's rapid evolution while carefully building out its feature set. "Andy, Hiroshi, and Hugo were the triumvirate of Android," a former co-worker said. "Those were the dudes that make Android work."
Today, Android is led by one of Google's brightest executives, Sundar Pichai, whose charge also includes both the mobile operating system group and the Chrome and Google Apps divisions he oversaw previously. Google says Barra was part of a strong Android leadership team that is still in place. The operating system's basic goal — to become a ubiquitous channel for delivering Google services — remains unchanged. But now that two of its biggest stars have moved on, how will Android change — and who will change it?
The Verge spoke with current and former Google employees, along with others who have worked with members of the Android team, to get a clearer sense of Android's current leadership team and its priorities. It remains unclear how Google will go about filling Barra's shoes. But in interviews with those who worked with him, a portrait emerges of what Android will lose with Barra at Xiaomi — and of how the company will proceed while they look to replace him.
The friendly face
In Barra, Android had a whip-smart manager with a flair for design — and for live product demonstrations. The Brazil native is deeply conversant in mobile technology, having spent five years focused on mobile voice search and messaging at Nuance Communications. He joined Google in March 2008 as its global head of mobile products and took over product management for Android two years later.
Under Rubin, collaboration was a largely technical affair
The Android group had a reputation for being dismissive of anyone perceived as an outsider, including Googlers who worked at other divisions. In some cases, former employees recalled, Android executives refused to return their calls. For a time, the Android building cafeteria was closed to non-Android employees. Former colleagues trace Android's insular culture to Rubin, whom they describe on one hand as a visionary leader, and on the other as a person who showed little interest in building bridges to the outside world. Under Rubin, collaboration was a largely technical affair, an exchange of code and documentation and little else. To “collaborate” with Android meant to build an app for it, or perhaps work with the Android team on an API like Google Wallet Instant Buy, which was built by the Wallet team and released during Rubin’s tenure.
To those outside the division, Barra was a rare friendly face at Android. He had a quick smile and an easy way with outsiders, and he had mastered that most crucial of the corporate arts: the presentation. "He was the go-to guy if you wanted to have a kickass demo," a colleague from another division said. "Especially if you wanted a demo of something Android, because you could never get Andy Rubin to do anything."
"He was the go-to guy if you wanted to have a kickass demo."
Barra also had a strong mind for product, colleagues say. Around the Android team, said another colleague, "Hugo's not really going to like that" or "this isn't going to fly because Hugo has a really strong opinion" were popular refrains.
At the same time, Barra didn't work in a vacuum. "You've got to remember, the bench is deep at Google," a former colleague said. "They've got a lot of smart people. There could be somebody really great waiting in the wings."
The deep bench
With Barra out, Google will look to several members of its leadership team to keep Android moving forward. As the head of the division, Pichai has moved quickly to integrate the operating system into the rest of Google. Colleagues credit him with helping to transform Android from a kingdom ruled by its creator into a more open environment, and he wins widespread praise among colleagues for his product smarts and approachable demeanor. To Pichai, colleagues said, collaboration means face-to-face communication with co-workers and a more engaging social environment.
Sundar Pichai leads Android, Chrome, and apps
Pichai has one of the broadest and most important product portfolios at Google, raising questions about how much attention he can pay to Android day to day. But all indications are that since taking over this spring, Pichai has been deeply involved in major decisions around the operating system.
Reporting to Pichai is Hiroshi Lockheimer, a longtime Android executive who has only occasionally stepped into the spotlight alongside Rubin and Barra. Lockheimer is Android’s vice president of engineering, and was mentioned by name in the farewell letters of both Rubin and Barra. Rubin wrote "Hiroshi Lockheimer — who many of you already know well — plus the rest of the Android leadership team will work closely with all of our partners to advance Android." One former colleague said that since Pichai has led Android, Lockheimer has taken on a more prominent role in the division, often answering questions about Android at the company's weekly internal Q&A sessions.
There's more than enough design work to keep Matias Duarte busy
Another key player who remains on the team is Matias Duarte, director of Android design. Duarte, who had held a similar position at Palm building webOS, took the lead on Android's design at a time when it was in dire need of a revamp. Duarte began remaking the operating system's design with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, focusing on building an OS that is both modern and consistent — though that process is still very much unfinished. Duarte and many other teams within Google collaborated to create a new design language that's spreading throughout the company. He is credited by peers for kickstarting Android's design renaissance. "Android never had design guidelines or a style guide," one person said. "That stuff got quickly accomplished when Matias came on."
Sources said Matias has been highly influential throughout Google, playing a key role in the design of Chrome for Android, among other products. But multiple insiders have said he is likely to remain in his current role, focused on design.
Another prominent voice at Android is its director of engineering, Dave Burke, who demonstrated a deep knowledge of the software issues facing Android when The Verge spoke with him after the launch of Android 4.3. A co-worker who knows him well called Burke a “massive” part of the team, noting that “he manages platform engineering, which is the heart and soul” of Android. Last year, at Google I/O, Burke took the stage to talk about "Project Butter," an important effort to make animations in Android run at 60 frames per second across the OS. Burke is less well known outside the division, and it's unclear how his role could change under the new regime. But if Google is looking to promote an engineer with an ability to connect with regular people, Burke has it.
If Google wants to make other voices more prominent at Android, it has still more to choose from. Other key leaders include Johanna Wright, the well-regarded vice president of search and assist, who leads Google Now; and Jamie Rosenberg, vice president of digital content, who leads Google Play. One name that does not appear to be on the list: Vic Gundotra, the senior vice president in charge of Google+, who multiple sources said wouldn’t make sense atop Android.
Challenges old and new
The list of challenges for Android's next generation of leaders is long. There are old concerns, like a fragmented ecosystem of devices running different versions of the software, and ongoing developer frustrations over difficulties getting Android customers to pay for apps on Google Play. And there are newer ones, including making Android accessible on new categories of devices, including some that can be worn and some that can be plugged into a TV. Those products will need a focused manager, one who can both guide their development and explain the finished products to a mainstream global audience. Until this week, that was a role at which Barra excelled. Now Google will be under pressure to find a new ambassador for the brand: someone trusted by the Android team who is also comfortable on stage.
Google will be under pressure to find a new ambassador for the brand
Google has some of its brightest minds creating the next version of Android — and, quite possibly, some of the devices it will run on. But suddenly, for the first time in three years, Barra won't be one of them. Rubin remains at Google, working in secrecy, while his successor Pichai works to integrate the Android kingdom into the rest of the company. Pichai’s toughest challenge is to make sure his remaining leadership team can deliver on the promise of the operating system. The decisions he makes now could shape Android — and Google — for years to come.
Additional reporting by Dieter Bohn, Adrianne Jeffries, and Nilay Patel.