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Android Primetime: What Does Sundar Pichai’s New role mean for Android?

October 27, 2014 - Written By David Steele

Google’s Sundar Pichai took over the Android, Chrome and Google Apps businesses back in March 2013. Since then, Android has gone from strength to strength, so much so that Larry Page has promoted Sundar to the head of almost everything at the front end of Google’s services. Larry’s going to devote more time to business and special projects, like Sergey Brin. Sundar’s list of responsibilities now includes research, Search, Maps, Google+, commerce, adverts and infrastructure. Under Sundar’s stewardship, we have seen many Android projects take off and make headway; most notably Android Wear, Android Drive and Android TV. We’ve also seen the introduction of Material Design and an attempt to realign Android device manufacturers more towards Google’s way of seeing and doing things. Android Lollipop is under two weeks away and whilst not trying to take away the considerable efforts that Google’s engineers have taken to get Lollipop ready, it’s important to take a look at some of the changes behind the scenes.

One important change is how Sundar has persuaded manufacturers to keep Android versions up to date. Until 2014, manufacturers could launch a device with any version of Android they felt like. Sundar changed this: if a manufacturer wanted to include Google’s core applications, so Search, Gmail, Calendar, Play Store, the device had to be running a reasonably current version of Android. The rule is that a previous version of Android may only be released on a device nine months after a newer version is released – for Android Kit Kat, that means that a device new to market from July this year had to be running Android Kit Kat. It’s no surprise that Kit Kat has many optimizations for low end devices, because one of the excuses manufacturers and carriers love to band around is that older devices don’t have enough memory, processor power or flux capacity to run the new version of the software. Unfortunately, we still see the argument tossed about when it comes to updating devices to Android Kit Kat. Cough, Samsung Galaxy S III, cough. But, we should see the situation improve.

This was an important change as it prevents a lazy manufacturer releasing a new-to-market device running a year-old version of Android, but it gets better: Google’s other requirement is that device software is updated to the newest version within an eighteen month window after release. It’s here that things can get a little convoluted; if you buy a device that’s been out for a year, it means your device should get the latest version of Android released in the subsequent six months. I write “should” because if you bought your device from a carrier, it may be subject to delays as the carrier tests the new software, adds in their own junk and in some cases, blocks the update. Things are not perfect but they’re getting better.

Compared with two years ago, the Android experience and ecosystem is far more cohesive and professional but as the Lollipop statue at Mountain View shows, still has a cheeky attachment to the past. Android Lollipop will address one of my criticisms of almost all mobile platforms, which is that using a device and a selection of applications has felt like switching between a selection of applications will do little in the way of integration. Lollipop gives application developers the opportunity to deeply integrate their products in ways that we’ve never seen before, so it should make it a far more seamless experience. Day to day, I am a normal user of Android devices: I want to pick up my email, message my contacts, browse the Internet, use social media, read the news and occasionally play a game. My ordinary devices are almost always kept completely stock. Android Lollipop excites the geek and the non-geek in me and we’re only just starting.

Okay, so we’ve taken a whistle-stop tour of where Sundar’s been in the last twenty months, now let’s extrapolate as to what might happen going forward. Android development will continue; Android Wear, Android Auto, and Android TV are ongoing projects. As 2014 peters out, Android Lollipop will be adopted by manufacturers great and small to become the new current. As Sundar inherits his other responsibilities, will we lose a little of the focus on the immediate Android, Chrome and Google Apps? Or instead, will having greater control over a wider part of Google allow Sundar to provide the same level of drive and focus across Maps, Google+, commerce, adverts and infrastructure (to name but a few)?

There’s another take on Sundar’s promotion: Android is going to become the centre of Google’s Empire. We’ve seen rumours that Chrome OS and Android will converge, which hasn’t happened so far. Sure; we have seen Chrome OS given the ability to run some Android applications (and this could be a game changer) but the two platforms are as different as they are similar. For my mind, I believe that Android Lollipop is the tip of an iceberg; Google’s deep integration between the applications and the operating system is a forerunner to the Internet of Things, or IoT. Mobile processor capability is approaching desktop and server capability, desktop and server processors are approaching mobile processor power consumption. The two will converge. Meanwhile, our smartdevices will become smarter and smarter, with greater connectivity. The mobile networks are going to take a centrepiece on this (and that’s perhaps why Google has been linked buying a mobile carrier). Smart thermostats, smartcars, smartwatches… integrated with whatever mobile (or desktop) device we happen to be using. I don’t necessarily expect Android to be the brand of Google’s deeper push into IoT, but I expect that it will provide the foundation of the technology.