Andy Rubin's absence and the evolution of Android

As I've been getting to know the latest incarnation of Android these past several days -- Android 4.4, KitKat (as it appears on the Nexus 5) -- I've had a nagging feeling that something feels different with the platform. Something broad. Something foundational.

I'd been having a tough time putting my finger on it. Then, while writing , it struck me:

Android is starting to feel more like a Google product and less like its own island within the Google universe.

Think about it: There's the ongoing move toward Google-esque minimalism in the Android UI (goodbye, robotic blues; hello, anonymous whites). Then there's the newly prominent integration of non-Android-specific Google functionality -- the kind of integration that suggests substantial collaboration and input from external departments.

Now think about this: KitKat is the first major release since the departure of Android co-founder and long-time chief Andy Rubin in March. Rubin had a reputation for working as a "solo artist" and shunning collaboration with anyone outside of his own team, while the man who replaced him, Sundar Pichai, also heads up Google's Chrome and Apps divisions and seems to embody the concept of cross-company collaboration.

The Wall Street Journal painted a vivid picture of the contrast between the two men in March, back when Rubin's departure was announced. In hindsight, the comparison seems downright prophetic:

Mr. Rubin has a reputation as a fierce competitor who sometimes clashed with others regarding the Google services that would appear on Android, said people familiar with the matter. ...

Mr. Rubin tried to run the Android unit like a startup, keeping it somewhat independent from the rest of Google and purposely keeping its headcount low, said people familiar with the matter. That sometimes led to conflicts with other Google units that tried to get their products to be preinstalled on Android devices or be more tightly integrated with the software, these people said.

Mr. Pichai is likely to be more accommodating and willing to integrate Android with more Google services, these people said.

And there you have it. Since taking over as CEO of Google, Larry Page has been working to streamline the company's products and make them more consistent and connected. Now Rubin's out, Pichai's in, and suddenly Android is starting to feel a lot more -- well, consistent and connected, in the grand scheme of Google products. KitKat, by all counts, is the first sign we're seeing of a post-Rubin, Pichai-influenced Android.

As I alluded to a moment ago, it's not just the move away from the distinctly Android-looking visuals and toward a more standard Google-like design we're talking about here. KitKat introduces deeper changes to the OS, some of which are arguably positive or at the very least promising: There's the integration of Google Search into the Phone app; the move of Google Cloud Print into the system level; the promotion of the cross-platform Google Hangouts as a replacement for the stock Messaging app; and the switch to Chrome as the default engine for third-party Web-rendering applications (an area that fits in directly with Pichai's expertise).

Other changes are a bit more puzzling -- like the meaningfully altered core flow of Android in order to put a cross-service Google product front and center. Then there's the integration of the Google-owned Quickoffice into the system alongside the confusingly similar Google Drive and the introduction of a Google+-connected app called Photos that shares much of the same functionality as the still-present Gallery app.

Even with the added poise and polish, it seems like Google's focus with this release was unusually scattered -- or perhaps just diverted. Some KitKat changes, like the regression of widgets to their out-of-sight Gingerbread-level placement, seem to directly counter the simplicity-centric goals the Android team had been working to accomplish since Android 4.0. Thinking about it in this light, it's hard not to wonder what that might indicate about the platform's philosophies and how they might be shifting.

Ultimately, KitKat is only a first step. Whether the post-Rubin evolution proves to be good or bad for Android in the long run is something we'll have to wait to see. But one thing's for sure: The times, they are a-changin'. Android is absolutely headed in a different direction these days -- and when you look at it closely, the accompanying shift in leadership seems anything but coincidental.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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