Rick Osterloh has a tough job ahead of him.
Google just hired the former Motorola president to run a new hardware division where he’ll be responsible for unifying its diverse handful of products, including its flagship Nexus phones and Google Glass revamp.
This role has never existed at the company before and it’s unclear whether Osterloh’s appointment signifies a new direction or perhaps just the need for someone to figure out what the company’s direction should be. But one thing is certain: it won’t be any easy task.
Android and Nexus
By inheriting Nexus, Osterloh will be responsible for managing all of Google’s relationships with different manufacturers. Google manages the design, development, and marketing of Nexus phones, but works with companies like Huawei, LG, and HTC to actually make the devices. Traditionally, the phone and tablet lines have given Google a way to show off its latest Android software innovations and inspire other hardware manufacturers that use the operating system, like Samsung, more than they have been a commercial success.
But several reports in the last year have indicated that Google is considering a move towards an Apple-like strategy where it takes more end-to-end control over Nexus. The thinking here, well-explained by The Information’s Amir Efrati, is that the company wants to make its phones more competitive with high-end devices like the iPhone, so that it doesn’t rely so much on Apple to entice people to the services that make it money, like search and maps.
If Google does go down this route, it would put a strain on its relationships with its partner Android phone makers though, as it increases Google’s hardware competition against them while still relying on them to distribute its apps and services.
Whether Osterloh will be deciding whether or not Nexus should go in this direction or actually leading it there, he’ll have a lot of nuanced relationships to tread carefully around.
The uncertain outliers
Besides Nexus, the new hardware division will include Google’s Chromebook laptops, primarily used in schools, its OnHub wireless router, which received mixed reviews, and its popular Chromecast streaming device. Of the three, the cheap Chromecast seems to have the most mainstream appeal.
But at least each of those seems to have defined ambitions. Osterloh’s domain also includes the company’s skunkworks hardware lab ATAP and Project Aura, Google’s attempt to revamp its beleaguered smart headset Glass.
Regina Dugan, the leader of the Advanced Technology and Projects Group, recently defected to Facebook. ATAP’s goal is to push out mobile-focused, research-intensive projects on tight time-spans. It’s modelled after the Department of Defence’s Advanced Research Projects division, where Dugan was a veteran, and her experience and leadership will be hard to replace. Additionally, one of its flashiest projects — a
As for Aura, a source familiar with the efforts recently described the team as still trying to figure out its exact direction as it works on a new enterprise version of its smart headset and, reportedly, a version without a screen. Osterloh will have to not only have to manage an incredibly disparate product line-up but help craft the on-going vision for ATAP and Aura in particular.
The concept of device will ‘fade away’
Meanwhile, as Osterloh steps up to the plate to figure out Google’s device strategy, the company has made its clear that its most important vision is to focus on its services, not its hardware.
“Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the ‘device’ to fade away,” CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post this week. “Over time, the computer itself — whatever its form factor — will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.”
While Pichai’s point isn’t that Google plans to stop creating hardware, it does underscore how important it will be for Osterloh to work very closely with other teams within Google, like Hiroshi Lockheimer, who runs Android and Chrome engineering, and John Giannandrea, who runs search.
His first particularly integrated project may come sooner rather than later: Google is reportedly working on a competitor to Amazon’s smart speaker, the Echo, which would likely be added to Osterloh’s purview.
And his first big appearance could be imminent, too: The company’s developers’ conference, where it shows off its latest products, is mid-May. Maybe we’ll hear more about Google’s, and Osterloh’s, hardware ambitions then.