Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer already has a tough job. When his old friend Rick Osterloh joined Google parent Alphabet this year to lead the company’s big new bet on hardware, Lockheimer’s task got even harder.
Google is making its own high-end smartphones now, like Apple, and it unveiled the first of these devices, the Pixel and Pixel XL, at an event in San Francisco on Tuesday. That’s a huge change from the way Google has operated in the mobile business since it launched Android as a free, open-source operating system that phone makers like Samsung and LG use to run their own devices.
Lockheimer recently spoke with Bloomberg at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California about the new hardware focus and how he’s going to keep Android partners happy as the company increasingly competes with them. Edited excerpts follow.
Bloomberg: These Pixel phones are expensive. Are you trying to crack the high-end smartphone market — where Apple has done so well and Android has struggled?
Lockheimer: Premium is a very important category. Having a healthy premium device ecosystem is an important element in an overall healthy ecosystem. For app developers and others. It’s where certain OEMs have been successful, like Samsung. It’s where Apple is also very strong. Is there room for another player there? We think so. Do we think it’s an important aspect of Android? Yeah, absolutely.
Bloomberg: What was the genesis of the Pixel phone? When and why did it get going?
Lockheimer: It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a while now as the intersection of hardware and software is more important than ever before. It was around the time we had to decide whether to kick off another Nexus device, or do something else. Conversations were happening in the summer of last year and the decision was made sometime in the fall. Phones typically take about 12 months now. The last 12 months have been very different for us. With Pixel, there was industrial design, mechanical engineering, even electrical engineering, component selection. These are things that the software and hardware teams did in tandem.
Bloomberg: Could Google have done this under the Nexus program?
Lockheimer: Being a platform provider and knowing a manufacturer on the other side will take your platform customize it and commercialize it — that’s one model and it’s worked great for us at massive scale. That is a different kind of engineering than Rick’s team. We’ll continue to develop the platform — that’s my job. Rick’s team will take that to a level of completion, polish, thoroughness that a platform by itself in abstract won’t get. That’s a pretty big shift. The Nexus devices have been the purest form of Android in the past. Pixel is the purest form of Google, which is Android plus a whole lot of other stuff like the Assistant, our VR platform and so on.