Android chief Andy Rubin kicked off the D: Dive Into Mobile conference in San Francisco this evening, where hosts Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg quizzed him about profitability (yes), complexity (acknowledged), and whether he’d talked to Nokia about swapping out Symbian and other platforms for Android instead (dodged).
He also demonstrated the Nexus S with Android 2.3, formerly known by the codename Gingerbread, which was officially unveiled earlier this morning.
Our transcript of the event starts below.
9:40 ET: Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher are taking the stage to introduce the event. This is the first topic specific spinoff from the annual D conference, dedicated to mobile computing. Carriers, handset makers, software makers will all be discussed. And not just smartphones but tablets as well.
9:43: Andy takes the stage with a “satchel,” in which will no doubt be a Nexus S.
9:44: So what happened with the Nexus One, asks Swisher. It didn’t overthrow the order. Rubin says they bit off more than they could chew because they were both trying to release an unlocked phone AND sell it only online.
9:45: The problem with Nexus One was scale–Google had to connect back ends, do credit checks, work in lots of different languages. They realised it would take 3 months to do every carrier, and decided it’d be better to spend their resources on the Gingerbread OS and things that would affect consumers more quickly. With the new Nexus S, Google’s not doing the provisioning system–the retailers like Best Buy already have connections. Google doesn’t have to be the aggregator of the world’s carriers, each retailer has contracts with the carriers already.
9:48: Mossberg asks for a status report. Rubin says when Android was started, it only had 8 people. It’s been out for a little more than two years, and now there are 172 phones running Android. Rubin credits the fast spread to open source software–anybody can check out the source code. There’s no contractual relationship required, no money needs to change hands.
9:50: Mossberg notes that Android phones are increasingly taking on the personality of the carrier, with “craplets” like you see on laptops. He notes the Verizon-Bing deal. On some Android phones, basic maps are carrier branded and they’re not Google Maps. “These may be fine apps, but…” Swisher says she’s spent a lot of time getting the craplets off a phone.
9:52: Rubin responds that the OS was designed to let carriers make the OS look completely different and still have all the apps run. He’s dissing Microsoft’s approach with Windows Phone 7, saying that if Google dictates rules for where buttons need to be, all phones will look the same and the phones will be commoditized.
9:53: So isn’t the idea to use more Google services, asks Mossberg? Rubin says it’s working–if Google builds the best apps, carriers will use them. “If operators want to offer two Bing phones out of 21 phones…that’s a fine experiment.”
9:54: Swisher: do you count yourself as the Windows of phones? “No, we’re the Linux of phones.” Mossberg shoots back with the problems that Linux has, like the impossibility of getting drivers. Rubin notes that when the craplets became a media story, the carriers called Android and said “you have to help us get this off here.” Consumers are voting.
9:55: Rubin gives credit to Apple and the iPhone for being fairly open. “I think everybody’s embracing the iPhone….a third-party developer without a lot of friction can get an app developed.” Now he’s going into different degrees–open source like Android, open APIs like Microsoft, and so on.
9:57: Swisher asks how does he look at Apple as a competitor? Rubin admits they make great consumer experiences. There’s a lot of consistency across applications. They’re also getting involved in services, app stores, music stores, book stores. Moving into services creates lots of opportunity. if the phone is the razor, the services are the blades.
10:00: Now they’re talking about services. What Google quickly realised is that you can have an ad-supported model, but then you need a bunch of happy users so they started going out and building Web apps starting with search. (This is revisionist history–Google the search engine came first, the ad model came later and was borrowed from Overture and others.)
10:01: Mossberg asks if Apple has the DNA to succeed in services, pointing at the botched launch of MobileMe. Rubin says Apple learns from its mistakes.
10:02: Both Mossberg and Swisher want to know: Is Android profitable? If so, how much is it making? Rubin says it doesn’t make much difference whether somebody uses Google by typing the URL into the browser or because it’s bundled with a phone–consumers will go to the best product. Pressed, Rubin says Android is profitable from advertising.
10:04: “I never would have been profitable as a startup company.” He doesn’t have to sell services to advertisers now, and admits that Android wouldn’t have been successful on its own.
10:06: What about other competitors? Rubin believes that Android and iPhone have a distinct advantage because both are new–they don’t have to haul along 20-year-old code in Symbian and Windows Mobile. Palm went through the same cycle.
10:07: Is it bad code just because it’s old code, asks Mossberg? Rubin notes that old code is problematic because the people who built it were in a different pre-Internet era. They didn’t design those OSs for the Internet. That gives Android a speed advantage.
10:08: Mossberg wonders if Rubin finds anything praiseworthy in Windows Phone 7. Rubin acknowledges that it was a big bet, but calls it “a good 1.0 product.” It does look different and unique, and there are connected services that can be built around it. “It’s solid..” He’d advise them to let carriers and handset makers differentiate.
10:10: Rubin notes that Nokia ships more smartphone units than anybody, still. He looks at them as a big competitor. Now they have Symbian and Meego.
10:11: Have you tried to convince Nokia to move to Android, asks Mossberg. Rubin asks “why rewrite” arcane pieces of code like bit blitters, virtual machines, sync software. Open source means you don’t have to redo it.
10:14: What about BlackBerry? What can RIM do? Rubin compares the BlackBerry to the RAZR from Motorola. What did Motorola do when the RAZR fit away? Switch to Android. Accumulating legacy doesn’t let you keep up with the competition. RIM bought QNX, bought other companies to fill in the missing pieces. “Sometimes you go off and create tablets and then come back to phones.”
10:17: Tablets. Rubin calls them a fundamental way in which people work–you touch them, you interact with them. It’s not like a laptop. The metaphor is much more physical. It happened with phones first, but really only 3 years ago. It’s going to change all of computing.
10:20: Rubin recalls how the PDA got absorbed into the mobile phone. The “tweener” product that you carry sometimes but not every day changes. The tablet is the new tweener product. You might have it on the couch, but not necessarily on the subway.
10:21: Using a well-designed device is almost a reaction. Once you know how to drive, you can drive any car anywhere in the world. The tablet and especially touch is in the middle of one of those hockey-sticks of evolution that gets computing closer to that point.
10:23: Swisher asks what are these phones sending back to Google? They not only know what you search on, but where you are, who you’re contacting and so on.
10:24: Android is open source. Security researchers can all look and see exactly what’s getting sent up into the cloud. There’s nothing in the Android open source OS that sends keystrokes, which apps you download, which apps you use, or any of that stuff up to Google.
10:25: OK, but what about the finished device from T-Mobile or another carrier? Rubin responds “not to my knowledge, and I wouldn’t agree to it.” Google services do collect certain things, just like Google on the Web. It’s no more on an Android phone than any other phone using Google services.
10:27: Now, Rubin is showing the Nexus S. Built in cooperation with Samsung. Rear and front facing cameras, gyroscope for manipulation of apps. Also has NFC–near-field communication ship. He shows the printed antenna on the inside back cover.
10:29: A simple NFC demonstrating: he holds the phone up against a piece of paper with an NFC transmitter in it and it opens a URL. But the NFC could send any kind of information. It’s very similar to QR codes, where users had to hold up a phone to an image and take a picture. They haven’t gotten huge yet because they’re not human readable. But with this, you could say “put your phone here and x”. You could prove you’re in a store for discounts. Boarding an aeroplane. We’re hoping third-party apps will bloom.
10:32: Could even replace the old way of “beaming” contact info–put to NFC-enabled phones within a couple inches of each other and they could exchange information.
10:33: So what’s a Nexus phone? It’s the pure version of Android. It’s also unlocked, you can use it on any network is free. It’s the pinnacle of what we can achieve by integrating Android onto a piece of hardware. It’s also the “lead device” for new versions of Android.
10:35: Other improvements n Nexus S–got rid of the trackball, support for voice-over-IP.
10:36: Mossberg asks if there’s any chance Android will build in videocalling. Yes, if consumers want it.
10:37: Now he’s showing a prototype of a Motorola tablet running Android. He’s showing a new version of the Google Maps app for Android phones and tablets launching in “days.” It has smooth scrolling–instead of little tiles stitched together, it’s a vector version. This makes it way more efficient–can load an entire trip at once. It also lets users rotate over maps to see 3D landscapes. (Kind of neat, but it’s not going to make anybody run out and buy an Android device if they weren’t already.)
10:42: “We’re not in the business of building tablets. We want everybody to use Android for tablets.” He contrasts how Android works with how Microsoft builds Windows–Microsoft makes one version of Windows and expects it to work on all PCs. Android developers use a particular reference design, closer to how Apple does it (where they control all hardware and software.)
10:46: Now they’re taking audience questions. What about Chrome OS? What’s the delineation between Chrome and Android?
Rubin: Google was built on the Web, but we felt innovation on the Web has slowed down a bit. So Google has taken the Chrome browser team, and their charter is to evolve the Web and make the Web a better place to program for. Chrome moves the Web forward. Rubin’s happy if more devices are running Google software, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Android or Chrome.
10:49: What about the enterprise? Rubin says they did a little bit like VPN, 802.1x security (but not the highest-level yet). Gingerbread supports a little more, including various Exchange ActiveSync features like remote wipe and password enforcement. With cloud-based services like Google Apps, it gets easier. And we’re “way ahead there.”
10:53: How about mobile e-commerce, including local like Foursquare and deals like Groupon. Rubin answers by pointing out that there’s carrier billing integration built into the platform today. Third-party developers will be able to connect users and merchandise through those billing systems. NFS and gyroscope will help with apps that know where the user is, which direction he’s moving, and so on. In other words, Android provides the infrastructure, it’s up to app developers to build the apps.
10:56: What about running Android on TV set top boxes, asks a questioner. That’s Google TV–it runs Android. That’s the exciting thing about Android, people are building it into all sorts of devices, refrigerators, car navigation systems. Rubin doesn’t have to be involved in every decision. Android can run on 3-inch screens, 16-inch screens, ARM processors, Intel processors–it’s future proofed pretty well.
10:58: Another questioner asks if wireless companies will stymie development with expensive pricing plans, like Verizon’s recently introduced LTE (“4G”) system.. Rubin says if consumers don’t flock to expensive pricing plans, they’ll change. Average usage on an Android phone is about 440MB a month, says Rubin. Bigger screen devices, it’ll go up. There’s a bandwidth crunch right now, but network bandwidth goes up in step functions.
11:01: How should phone makers differentiate themselves if they all use Android? Rubin points to HTC Sense, Sony Ericsson Mediascape. Rubin disputes that Android is fragmented. To a reviewer looking at a bunch of phone, these phones look like different phones. But that’s differentiation–average lifetime of a phone is 2 years. So people can download apps on different phones and they still run, yet the phone makers have differentiation.
11:04: Joshua Topolsky from Engadget asks when will Android become more user-friendly? What’s up with all the hidden functions? Rubin says Android is a tech enthusiast’s platform today. They set out with the goal of allowing the phone to be reshaped by the consumer. To enable that, they had to make some concessions on “geeking it out.” Android will pay more attention to detail, and do things like merging multiple functions into one. Future versions won’t have a bunch of menu options at the bottom.
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