Meet Sundar Pichai, the new head of Android

The executive, who rose to prominence on the success of Chrome, is tasked to keep Google's momentum in the mobile world going.

Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president in charge of Chrome and Apps, speaking at Google I/O.
Sundar Pichai, the new head of Android, speaking at Google I/O last year. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Sundar Pichai, a Google veteran fond of fast browsers and computers, will have to move quickly himself as the newly named head of Android.

CEO Larry Page announced Pichai's new role in a surprise blog post today. Pichai assumes the responsibilities of Andy Rubin , who is stepping down as head of Android to "start a new chapter at Google."

As the man who shepherded the Chrome browser and operating system from concept to their current, more refined iterations, Pichai has a record of defying skeptics and building projects from the ground up. But with Android, Pichai inherits a behemoth, arguably the most influential entity in the mobile industry.

"I know Sundar will do a tremendous job doubling down on Android as we work to push the ecosystem forward," Page said in his post.

Google declined to make him available for an interview.

Pichai's entry into the rapidly changing mobile world comes at a chaotic time. Despite the strength of the Android ecosystem, Samsung Electronics has emerged as the de facto Android king with its Galaxy S franchise (the Galaxy S4 is set to be unveiled tomorrow ). Rubin, at one point, referred to the Korean giant as a threat.

At the same time, many companies building Android phones are trying to wean themselves from Google's mobile operating system by seeking various alternatives, from established mobile platforms, such as Microsoft's Windows Phone and BlackBerry, to start-ups, like Mozilla's Firefox and Samsung's Tizen.

The shake-up in Android leadership also brings up a lot of questions. Some industry observers believe Pichai's new responsibilities could point to the merger of Chrome and Android, potentially bridging the divide between the computer and smartphones and tablets.

That's a daunting task. Most outsiders believe Chrome and Android businesses have been competing against each other, said Avi Greengart, who covers Google for research firm Current Analysis. The platforms are based on different visions for the future of computing: universal HTML 5 applications in the cloud for Chrome versus optimized native applications installed in the device for Android. Pichai's biggest challenge will be juggling the two worlds and deciding whether or not they should collide.

At the same time, it will be his job to maintain Android's considerable momentum. The operating system held 70.1 percent of the smartphone OS market in the fourth quarter, growing nearly three times faster than the second-largest platform, Apple's iOS.

By many accounts, Pichai brings a strong resume to the job. He joined Google in 2004 and saw his stock rise with the success of Chrome. Indeed, his success there and in the Apps business, which includes Gmail and Google Drive, likely helped win him his new responsibilities.

"Chrome has done phenomenally well," said Daniel Ernst, an analyst at Hudson Square Research. "It's a big part of Google cementing their role in desktop search."

As Page noted in his post, people questioned whether the world needed another browser when Google kicked off its version in 2008. Now, Chrome has claimed a solid position as the most-used browser, according to Statcounter, with a share of 36.5 percent of the market. Another firm, Net Applications, uses a different calculation and has Chrome at No.3, with 17.5 percent of the market behind Internet Explorer and Firefox.

The Chrome OS, which appears to be where Pichai's true passion lies, has likewise transformed from a fringe project to an operating system installed in products. While the Chrome computers haven't been tremendously successful, products like the Chromebook Pixel are considered significant improvements from the first generation.

Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of engineering in charge of Chrome and the Google Apps, shows off the touch screen Chromebook Pixel at an event in San Francisco. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Pichai is a lanky, energetic executive known for both his intensity and his calm smile. He's also a family man, fond of showing slides of his family members during presentations; he's been known to use them as guinea pigs for Chrome OS tests. For instance, he'll have his daughter work on her homework on a Chromebook, his wife work on another, and then remotely manage a third for his parents.

He exudes genuine enthusiasm for his projects and shows an evangelical zeal when it comes to Chrome and Chrome OS without (remarkably) gaining a reputation for being overbearing, according to CNET editors who have spent time with him.

"He's a very capable executive," said Trip Chowdhry, an analyst at Global Equities Research, adding that he admires some of the innovations Pichai brought to the Chrome browser.

Before joining Google, Pichai worked at Applied Materials and McKinsey & Co. He got his bachelor's degree in technology from the Indian Institute of Technology, where he was awarded an Institute Silver Medal. He also holds a master's degree in science from Stanford University and a master of business administration degree from Wharton, where he was named a Siebel Scholar and a Palmer Scholar.

If Android is going to continue its stellar run, Pichai will have to stay on his toes. His appreciation for moving quickly can only help.

--Stephen Shankland, Seth Rosenblatt, and Casey Newton contributed to this story.

 

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