Google's Android Makes Phones Act Like PCs

The blogs are agog about Android, Google's entry into the already-crowded mobile phone market. Google says it's not developing its own phone, just the platform necessary to run cell phones as if they were PCs. Andrew Rubin, Google's senior director of mobile platforms and co-creator of Android, talks with Andrea Seabrook.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

The stalled U.S. economy is even worrying the folks at Google, the Internet heavyweight that has seemed incapable of making a wrong move. Google's market value has been sagging, but this week brought some good new for Google investors. The FCC agreed to open up a portion of the wireless airwaves. Here's the deal: This part of the spectrum won't belong to any one cell phone company; it'll be open to all comers. And that's where Google comes in.

The company has been looking to get into the cell phone industry. For years now, bloggers and tech heads have whispered this word, Gphone. Depending on who you ask, Google's cell phone would be free. It would be sleek. It would kill Apple's iPhone. It would make you thin. Okay, no one ever claimed that. Then, in November, the big news came.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Unidentified Woman: After months of waiting, Google has unveiled a strategy for Internet on portables. No Gphone to compete with iPhone, but a project called Android.

SEABROOK: Android. Bloggers and techies reacted to Google's announcement with a collective cry of huh? No Gphone? What's Android?

I went to Silicon Valley to find out. I strolled onto the Google campus, past the volleyball court and the free bikes parked everywhere. I made my way to a conference room that seemed normal except for a weird videogame controller in the form of a drum set sitting in the corner. There, I sat down with Google's chief cell phone guy, Andy Rubin.

So where's the Gphone?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDY RUBIN (Director, Mobile Platforms, Google Inc.): Well, it's funny. You know, that's the question that would get asked live. There is no single Gphone. With the Android platform, we're trying to enable thousands of Gphones.

SEABROOK: So wait a second, there's no single Gphone, but there will be thousands of Gphones? I think that requires an explanation. It turns out that Google doesn't want to make a Gphone. They want to turn your next cell phone and every future cell phone into Gphones. Android would do that by becoming the software that makes the phones run. These days, people want their phones to do more and more things. And cell phone manufacturers have struggled to come up with a software to satisfy all those demands. To surf the Internet, serve up driving directions, send e-mail.

Mr. RUBIN: What Android is all about. So it includes, you know, YouTube, Google Maps, the Web browser, phone functionality, contact management, calendar, alarm clock, like everything in a bundle. And up until now, that didn't exist. There was no one place you could go to get that complete bundle.

SEABROOK: Maybe you remember the early days of personal computing when each computer maker - Commodore, Atari, Osborne - had its own operating system and software. Then Windows came along and PCs standardized around that operating system. Almost any computer could run it. Where cell phones are today is where computers were before Windows. Andy Rubin wants Android to do for cell phones what Windows did for computers. He shows me a prototype Gphone. Google has not shown it to anyone before. I agree not to describe the device in return for a peek at how the software on it works.

Mr. RUBIN: So let's start out. I'm going to click on the browser here, and what you'll see is it'll pop up pretty quickly, and here we have Google's home page.

SEABROOK: Gosh, why'd you choose that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUBIN: Of course, the user can change that to whatever they want. That was live, loaded over a 3G network, so you notice that even on a cell phone, it's as fast as your PC. You don't have to sit here waiting, and you know, waiting for the Web page to get - convert into something that the cell phone speaks.

SEABROOK: Now, is it connecting via WiFi or via the cell phone?

Mr. RUBIN: Via the cell phone.

SEABROOK: Oh, so it's more broadband savvy.

Mr. RUBIN: It's always on. You can do simultaneous voice and data, so if I'm on the phone, I can still browse the Web. So if somebody wants directions to somewhere, I can go help them look it up and then speak the directions to them.

So one of the demos that I have here is Google street view.

SEABROOK: Rubin touches an icon, and up pops a picture of a street in San Francisco. The Android software allows you to look to the left of that street, to the right, even behind, 360 degrees around. The phone also does e-mail, it stores contacts and documents. It can even render 3-D graphics and play video games, not just the dinky ones, either, but the really cool ones with lots of fancy graphics. In fact with Android, this phone does just about anything you might do on your home or work computer.

Now remember that analogy to those early PCs, when Windows came along and standardized the software? Well, here's one way Android is different than that. It is open-source. It is free. Rubin says anyone can download a copy of Android and create their own games, widgets, clocks, anything, for free.

Mr. RUBIN: We've seen a lot of people rallying around this platform because it's open. It's something where they're not afraid of it. They're not afraid of some ulterior motive of this corporate thing that is somehow going to monetize them. They're free to use this platform however they want to use it, and that's where innovation happens, right, when you kind of remove all the roadblocks, right, and all the islands and walled gardens and say hey, here's a great piece of technology. It does all the things that I just demonstrated to you. Now you go and, you know, use that as the basis for creating whatever your application is. It's really easy to rally around that.

SEABROOK: So how do you make money on it?

Mr. RUBIN: That's a really good question. So you know, strategically, Google doesn't have to make money on this, and you could ask that question to anything. How does Google make money on Google maps? How does Google make money on Gmail? How does Google make money on a search? The answer's always the same.

SEABROOK: Advertising.

Mr. RUBIN: Yes.

SEABROOK: So you're basically like - I mean, if you want to talk about it in 20th century terms, you're making really great TV shows. Get people to sit through the toothpaste commercial.

Mr. RUBIN: Yeah, I think that's one of the things that we focus on. We focus on building the killer applications that delight consumers, and they want to keep coming back, and then Google can help them, through advertising, get relevant information about the products that they're searching for.

SEABROOK: So far, this model seems to be working just fine for Google. Last year, they reported a net income of $4.2 billion. So Google can afford to splurge a little bit on a contest they've devised for Android. They're going to give away $10 million, in chunks, to average, everyday coders. These folks will download Android for free, then share their designs of what Google calls the coolest, most delightful stuff for the Android platform.

What does cool and delightful mean to Google? Well, put it this way. The toilets in Google's bathrooms have an electronic panel with more options than a microwave, including temperature and air-drying. So it seems Google is prepared to try anything.

Rubin says all sorts of programmers are whipping out code to try to win that prize money, from a team assembled by the government of Taiwan to 12-year-olds in their parents' basements, and think about this. By the time those 12-year-olds turn 15, they may not know a world without Android-driven cell phones that can locate the nearest pizza joint, download the latest Hollywood blockbusters, and heck, maybe even make a phone call.

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