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Android Cofounder Tells Us About The Precarious Art of Over-Reaching

Android’s cofounder dissects the advantages of youth and inexperience when they meet audacious goals.

Android Cofounder Tells Us About The Precarious Art of Over-Reaching

[Image: Flickr user Loren Kerns]

Last year Android was installed on 78.6% of the smartphones shipped globally. Rich Miner cofounded Android with Andy Rubin in 2004, sold it to Google in 2005, and is now a partner at Google Ventures.

"Andy started looking at how to build an OS for cameras," says Miner. "When I joined he was already thinking that maybe it's about mobile phones and that's one of the reasons he talked to me." At the time Miner was a partner at Orange Ventures, to whom he had sold his first company, Wildfire. One of his investments was Andy's startup Danger, which was acquired by Microsoft.

"I'm proudest of the fact that within Google we were able to deliver on this vision of an open platform," says Miner. "That was a very audacious goal for a platform itself and a very audacious goal for a company. I'm also excited to see it make its way into lots of other devices—wearables, cars."

Miner has been pursuing audacious goals for a long time. In college in the mid-1980s, he was programming graphics and writing control software for teams of robots. "I've always enjoyed doing things which are very responsive, where you can get sort of immediate feedback," he says.

"Rendering graphics, you hit the return button and see your fractal mountain get built or what have you. Programming a robot if you did it wrong it's going to crash into something. Putting a phone in somebody's hand where they touch and feel and interact. So that kind of immediate feedback I've always sort of enjoyed. I'm still delighted by that."

In his first company, Wildfire, Miner built a voice-based personal secretary with the sort of interface that he had seen on Star Trek 20 years earlier. "Naivete can be a good thing," says Miner. "That was the case when we did Wildfire. We just blindly said ‘let's start using speech’ way before others. Luckily one of the cofounders understood how to build a personality with voice. When we first built her in 1994, everybody looked underneath the table and thought we were hiding something, like some kind of Mechanical Turk-ian chess game, that we were faking it. We broke barriers because we didn't know what wasn't possible."

Starting Android 10 years later was a very different story. "We launched the first Windows mobile phone with Orange. I saw the challenges of the fact that these phones were becoming computers. To make that transition they needed to have platforms that were developer-friendly and open. So that was much more of a thesis born out of working with the carriers, working with the handset OEMs, seeing that there needed to be more open software. That was more informed."

I asked Miner which of the current generation of young entrepreneurs he predicts will go on to do great things. He picked Seth Priebatsch, the CEO of one of his portfolio companies, Scvngr. "He's just 24 at the moment and unbelievably senior beyond his age, trying to disrupt mobile payments where the likes of Google haven't managed to figure it out. He's incredibly bright but also has a huge amount of common sense. It's a little bit of geek bright but he balances that with understanding people and dynamics in business."

Miner doesn’t take all the credit for his own stellar career. "A lot of my career feels like lucky mistakes," he says. "You've got to be doing the right stuff but then no matter whether you do the right stuff or not being at the right place at the right time. I'm pretty content with the decisions that I've made. With hindsight one could have made better decisions at any one point in time but I don't know that the arc would have been any more interesting or better."