What will Andy Rubin's departure mean for Android?

Andy Rubin Android

Well, that was certainly unexpected.

Google dropped a major bombshell this morning when it announced Android chief Andy Rubin was stepping down and being replaced by Sundar Pichai, the guy currently in charge of Chrome at the company.

"Having exceeded even the crazy ambitious goals we dreamed of for Android -- and with a really strong leadership team in place -- Andy’s decided it’s time to hand over the reins and start a new chapter at Google," CEO Larry Page explained on the official Google blog.

Page went on to note that Pichai would oversee Android "in addition to his existing work," saying he was confident Pichai would "do a tremendous job doubling down on Android" as the company works "to push the ecosystem forward."

Wait. What?

If you're sensing more questions than answers here, you aren't alone. The challenge now is trying to make sense of the change and figure out what it means for the future of Android.

Rubin stepping down at all is a surprise: The now-well-known robot enthusiast co-founded Android as a small startup back in 2003 and has overseen its development ever since. He's remained the proud papa of the platform from day one, heading up its development at Google (which bought the startup in 2005) and earning the title of "senior vice president of mobile and digital content."

Even more eyebrow-raising, though, is the nature of Rubin's replacement. Sundar Pichai already heads up development of both Chrome and Chrome OS as well as a number of apps, including Gmail and Google Calendar -- and, perhaps most significant, will continue overseeing those projects while taking on his new Android-oriented responsibilities.

Chrome OS and Android, together at last?

Oh, hello, giant elephant in the room.

Google Android, Chrome

People have been asking for ages whether Chrome OS and Android would eventually merge, and Pichai's appointment only adds fuel to the fire. Particularly with the launch of the touch-enabled Chromebook Pixel computer, many a pundit has pondered the possibility of the platforms cozying up like long-separated lusty lovers.

For his part, Pichai -- who led the press briefing on the Pixel last month -- has played down such suggestions.

"We have two viewpoints here and we are doing both," he told Wired at the Pixel launch event. "This may enable the applications to even look the same across platforms and users don’t even care about the underlying technology."

He tackled the topic even more directly in an interview with AllThingsD.com, saying: "What we are showing here is once you build a touchscreen laptop, the lines blur" -- and "we’re comfortable at Google with two viewpoints."


    Sundar Pichai

Still, it's hard not to read into Pichai's appointment to Android. Regardless of why Rubin actually stepped aside or what exactly he'll work on next (Page was decidedly vague on those subjects), there's no shortage of talented people who could have taken over the role. Giving the responsibility to the same guy who runs Chrome, Chrome OS, and apps -- and who will continue to run those areas alongside Android -- sure seems like it signifies something.

Remember, though: We don't yet know what that something is -- and anyone who says otherwise (aside from a few key Google employees) is simply speculating. Maybe Android and Chrome OS will merge in some new way, or at least start to overlap more directly. The idea of being able to run Android apps on a device like the Chromebook Pixel is certainly intriguing, and you can imagine the ways Chrome OS could bring exciting new elements into Android as well.

Then again...

That theory seems plausible enough, but today's shakeup could just as easily mean something less drastic. It could, for example, lead to a more unified approach to the Google Play platform across the company's existing (and separate) platforms. As it stands now, there are some odd disconnects within Google's walls -- like the fact that the Chrome browser comes preloaded as the default browser on current Android phones but is developed by a separate team outside of the Android division.

Google Play

Then there's the weird ecosystem branding inconsistency: Last March, Google made a big move to shed the "Android Market" moniker and consolidate its digital content into a single hub called Google Play. The decision was described as a way to emphasize the store's expanded range of content -- from just apps to apps, movies, music, books, and magazines -- and the availability of said content to users on any PC or mobile device.

Curiously, though, the Chrome Web Store -- Google's storefront for apps that run in its Chrome browser and Chrome OS operating system -- wasn't included in that reorganization and remains a standalone entity.

A big part of Larry Page's focus since taking over as Google CEO has been working to unify the company's ecosystem and, in his words, create "a simpler, more intuitive experience across Google." So it's entirely possible that following the Rubin-Pichai shuffle, we could continue to see two platforms -- serving two different purposes -- but with a more consistent and unified ecosystem around them.

(Think back on that Pichai quote I mentioned a minute ago: "This may enable the applications to even look the same across platforms and users don’t even care about the underlying technology." Hmm...)

Android Power Twitter

Ultimately, only time will tell what's actually in store. What's important now is to remember that many possibilities do exist -- and that the headlines declaring one conclusion or another are little more than premature e-declaration.

Hey, it happens to everyone.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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