Google’s Top Android Exec Unexpectedly Steps Down


Andy Rubin has stepped down as  executive in charge of Google’s Android operating system for smartphones and tablet computers, ending a seven-year reign that reshaped the technology industry.

The unexpected change, announced Wednesday, may raise new questions about the Android’s direction, as Google duels with Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. and a long list of other companies in the increasingly important mobile computing market.

Google is replacing Rubin with Sundar Pichai, an executive in charge of the company’s Chrome Web browser and operating system for lightweight laptop computers. That move may heighten recurring speculation that the Chrome operating system eventually will supplant Android. Google executives haven’t ruled out the possibility of the two operating systems ultimately merging together, although they have stressed there are no immediate plans to do so within the next couple of years.

In a Wednesday blog post, Google CEO Larry Page said that Rubin, 50, has reached a stage in his career at which he wants to try something different, after devoting so much time and energy to Android. Rubin, a longtime gadget lover who once worked at Apple, hatched Android at a startup product that Google purchased in 2005, when accessing the Internet from a mobile phone was still an exercise in frustration.

“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,” Page wrote. The company declined to disclose what Rubin’s new role will be.

Google Inc.’s stock dipped $2.30 Wednesday to close at $825.31.

Although he isn’t well-known outside the technology industry, Rubin ranked among the most influential figures in the early stages of the smartphone’s development. Most viewed his team’s work on Android as revolutionary, although the late Steve Jobs blasted the software as a shameless rip-off of the breakthroughs that Apple made with the 2007 introduction of the iPhone. The first phones running on Android came out more than a year after the iPhone’s debut.

While Android’s features mirror many of those on the iPhone, the way the former is distributed is much different.

Rubin and his team built Android as a piece of “open-source” software that could be easily modified by other developers. That contrasts with the iPhone, the software of which is tightly controlled by Apple. But Rubin also created the Nexus smartphone and tablet line as a showcase for the software.

Additionally, Google has always given away Android to device makers, content to make money from the advertising that it sells on Google services built into the software. Making the software free has spawned an array of smartphones that are more affordable than the iPhone.

“The iPhone kind of showed the way for smartphones, and then Android turned them into something that could be for everyone,” said Gartner Inc. analyst Carolina Milanesi.

To herald Rubin’s accomplishments, Page provided an update to Android’s ubiquity Wednesday. He said the software is now running on more than 750 million smartphones and tablets throughout the world, making it the world’s most widely used mobile operating system. Through December, Apple sold about 440 million iPhones and iPads since those devices were released.

Android could get another boost  on Thursday, with Samsung Electronics Co.’s expected release of the latest smartphone in its popular Galaxy line; Galaxy phones run on Android.

Relinquishing control of Android has also been a source of frustration for Google, as device makers have created different permutations of the operating system to suit their own goals. That has made it more difficult to ensure that Android users have a consistent experience on the software and, in some cases,  it has complicated Google’s efforts to make money off its services in the mobile market.

Now that Android is firmly established, Milanesi predicts that Google will focus on figuring out more ways to increase its mobile advertising revenue.

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