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Tech Forecast

Google's Hiroshi Lockheimer On The Present And Future Of Android And Chrome OS

The engineer in charge of Google's operating systems says they're both similar and different—and add up to an overarching vision.

Google's Hiroshi Lockheimer On The Present And Future Of Android And Chrome OS
[Photo: Flickr user Yuri Samoilov]

In 2005, software engineer Hiroshi Lockheimer got a call from Andy Rubin, his former boss at Danger Research, the creator of the Sidekick (aka Hiptop), the first truly web-savvy smartphone. Rubin was now at Google, which had recently acquired his new startup. Lockheimer was working on Internet TV software for Microsoft, after stops at Palm and Good Technology.

Hiroshi Lockheimer

"He knew my interest in consumer devices, and specifically wireless devices," Lockheimer remembers. "He called me up and said, 'Hey, you know, we're doing this thing at Google now, we got acquired. I can't really tell you what we're doing, but I think you're really going to be excited about it. You should come talk to us.'"

Lockheimer did talk to Rubin, and ended up joining Google in January 2006 to contribute to a new mobile operating system. It didn't ship on a phone for nearly two years. But Lockheimer is still working on Android today as a Google VP of engineering, a position that includes oversight of both it and Chrome OS, the operating system that powers Chromebooks such as Google's own Pixel.

Android as it appeared in 2007, long before the first Android phone shipped

On the eve of Google's annual I/O developer conference, I visited Lockheimer at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. to talk about the current state of Android and Chrome OS—and why Google thinks it's logical, rather than inefficient, to have two operating systems.

A Billion Phones A Year, And More

The mystery project that Lockheimer joined Google to work on in 2006 is now by far the world's dominant mobile operating system in terms of market share. Android shipped on more than a billion smartphones in 2014—and powers much of Google's ever-expanding ambitions when it comes to consumer electronics of all sorts.

"I had no idea that this is where we would be nine-plus years later," he says. "Maybe we should have been dreaming bigger dreams, but this has far exceeded my expectations, and it's kind of really humbling, actually. I'm wearing a watch that's running Android now. I have a TV set at home that's running Android. I'm trying out cars that have Android running in them."

Android TV running on a Sony HDTV

Even though Android still feels like it has plenty of new frontiers ahead of it, it's also feeling increasingly mature: At this point, it's an operating system without much in the way of glaring flaws or major missing features. You can see that in the slowing pace of big updates. The Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, and Honeycomb versions were released at breakneck speed over a total period of less than two years between 2009-2011. Today's Android upgrades can still be substantial—last year's Lollipop version introduced an extremely ambitious aesthetic makeover called Material Design—but they arrive at an iOS-like annual pace.

"As we've grown as a platform, we realize that to some extent predictability is important for the whole industry: developers, manufacturers, operators, and consumers, frankly," Lockheimer explains. "So we've landed with sort of a yearly cadence of big releases, so, for instance, one year we release J, the next year we release K, and then the year after that L, and then this year we'll launch M, and so you can predict what will happen next year."

Android Wear in action

But he pushes back against any notion that it's getting harder for Google to figure out how to improve Android. And its evolution isn't just about putting it on new types of devices. "The trick is not to think about them in isolation," Lockheimer says. "It's really about thinking about these different screens, if you will, holistically. How do they work with each other? A watch, and a phone, and a TV, and a car, and a tablet, how can they coordinate, and how can they actually enrich our lives, and make things that were harder before more useful?"

He provides an example: "Before you get in your car, maybe you're planning your trip, you're planning whatever restaurant you're going to, and you do this on your computer, at your home or at your office. Then you get into your car, and then you have to do that search all over again to find the address, and put it into your car."

"Well, shouldn't your car know that you just looked this thing up, and guess that that's probably where you're going to want to go? These are things that we can now enable by having a common platform."

A Less Fractured Operating System

Android's defining characteristic—as conveyed in its "Be together. Not the same" ad campaign—is that it's available on a multitude of devices from hardware makers who can tweak it to their liking. For years, most of them did a lot of tweaking, not always to the operating system's benefit. Recently, though, major phones such as Samsung's Galaxy S6 have used it in something closer to its unvarnished state. I asked Lockheimer for his thoughts on this trend away from customization for customization's sake.

Samsung's Galaxy S6

"As part of my job, I do meet with many of our partners, including manufacturers and operators and so on, and silicon vendors and the whole stack," he told me. "And I have noticed the same thing, which is that the manufacturers seem to have reached a new type of equilibrium around the customization that they do on top of Android. One of the core principles of Android has been, it's open source, and amenable for manufacturer differentiation. We didn't want to build an operating system where the manufacturers just didn't have a way to differentiate, because we didn't think that would help adoption. I'm talking about 10 years ago, nine years ago."

Material Design—a defining aesthetic not just for Android but for Google products in general—has left hardware makers less inclined to put their own stamp on Android, Lockheimer says. "Manufacturers realize that design has a name, and it has a name because it's a big, huge investment from Google and the developer ecosystem rallying around this one design guideline. We've worked very closely with their design teams and update them on roadmaps and take their feedback, so that they're a part of the process, so that they feel invested in it. I think it's been a huge success for us."

New Bosses, New Responsibilities

Lockheimer was once part of a triumvirate that ran Android, along with Rubin and Hugo Barra. It was dissolved in 2013, when Rubin stepped down as the operating system's chief and Barra left Google for Chinese smartphone kingpin Xiaomi. Now the OS falls into the large percentage of Google operations reporting to senior VP Sundar Pichai, along with search, Gmail, Chrome, Apps, Maps, Google+, and more.

When I asked Lockheimer about his working relationship with Pichai, he didn't explicitly contrast it with the Rubin era. But he did describe an organization that isn't siloed off from other Google offerings and corporate goals. "We don't really talk about org charts, per se," he says. "We talk about what are the products that we want to build, and then we get into the details—'Okay, what is the best way in which to build those products'—but it always starts with the first principle, which is great user experiences."

In October of last year, another round of reorganization put Lockheimer in charge of Chrome OS as well as Android, bringing Google's operating systems closer together than ever before. The move led some observers to wonder if Google intended some sort of unification of the two OSes. Lockheimer, not surprisingly, isn't talking about any such plan—which, with Android devices selling by the billion and Chromebooks doing well in niches such as K-12 education, doesn't feel like an urgent matter in any case.

Google's Chromebook Pixel

Instead, he emphasizes the value of having different platforms for different sorts of devices. "At some very base level, an operating system is an operating system," he says. "There's silicon and there's software, and those two things need to talk to each other. But where they do start to diverge—or maybe specialize is a better word—is as you get closer and closer to the user experience." Laptop-style Chromebooks, for instance, have always paid attention to keyboard shortcuts; touchscreen-oriented Android devices, not so much.

Still, with the OSes under joint management, it's easier to share knowledge—which is helpful even in the case of keyboard shortcuts, now that more people are using Android tablets with Bluetooth keyboards. Implementing support for technology standards can be done with both Android and Chrome OS in mind: As Lockheimer puts it, "Wi-Fi is Wi-Fi." And bringing the teams closer makes it easier to implement cross-platform features such as the ability to use an Android phone to unlock a Chromebook.

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Lockheimer how much time he spent thinking about Android's and Chrome OS's future past the next release or two, and what they might look like a few years from now. I thought I was giving him an opportunity to wax eloquent on pie-in-the-sky stuff. Instead, he stayed practical, and said that developing operating systems can't be done in isolation from the components they use and the devices they'll run on. Running engineering for these two operating systems requires him to think about everything from chips to merchandising.

"It's not just the technology," he told me. "It's about the go-to-market. It's about the retail. It's about the manufacturing. It's about the chipsets. What are the capabilities of a display two years from now? Maybe there are new technologies that are in the roadmap for a display company, and maybe we can incorporate those things."

"It's a very wide view that we need to take, and I try my best to do that."

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