Google's Android has too many flavors and Apple isn't the only one who thinks so

Hiroshi Lockheimer, the chief of Google's mobile software, must both fend off Apple and fight Android "fragmentation." His modus operandi: Lighten up, everyone.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
9 min read

Walking through Google's campus on a warm February afternoon, Hiroshi Lockheimer pauses and points to two tourists smiling at their outstretched selfie stick. The world-famous Googleplex is always filled with tourists, who come to gawk and admire the sprawling headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley.

"Ten years ago, I would have never imagined that," he says laughing, as we pass by.

But it's actually kind of his fault that they're even there. Lockheimer is a big part of the reason smartphones are everywhere. For the past decade, he's helped craft Google's Android operating system, now the most popular mobile software on the planet. Five months ago, he became chief of Android, overseeing development and partnerships and strategizing on how to stay ahead of Apple's iOS software for the iPhone and iPad.

When Lockheimer joined Google in 2006, most of the world was still using feature phones that had little or no access to the Internet. The iPhone, unveiled a year later by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, definitely helped popularize the idea of smartphones. And even though Apple sold millions of iPhones in the first year, it wasn't until Android debuted in 2008 that smartphones really went mainstream.

Instead of tying its software to one flagship device (and one carrier, at first) like Apple, Google gave away its software for free. Handset makers including Samsung, HTC, Sony and LG lined up and began offering Android-powered phones that ranged, in price and functionality, from high to low. Suddenly, smartphones were affordable to wider swaths of the population.


Hiroshi Lockheimer, who joined the Android team 10 years ago, became the mobile software's chief in October.

James Martin/CNET

The giveaway had a catch: Handset makers who wanted to use Android had to highlight Google services like search and maps on their phones, instead of their own apps.

Google's strategy has paid off. Now more than 2 billion people worldwide have smartphones, according to research firm eMarketer, and four out of five of them are powered by Android. That's over 1.6 billion people with the Internet, high-resolution cameras and, most importantly, Google's apps and services, in their pockets all day long.

That brings our conversation to selfie sticks, which are a direct result of all those pocket cameras. While phone cameras have gotten better, evolution has failed to make our arms long enough to neatly capture the Eiffel Tower, Mount Rushmore or a neon green Android statue in the frame without some extra help.

Watch this: The top 5 biggest announcements from Google I/O 2016

"Like, really? A stick that has an integrated..." Lockheimer says, launching into a discussion about the technical peculiarities of the low-tech wand before giving up trying to explain. (The selfie stick, by the way, may have been invented in the 1980s by another guy named Hiroshi.)

Lockheimer, 40, may not be a household name, but he's become one of the most important executives in technology today. Google put him in charge of Android in October. That was after co-founder Larry Page announced a radical restructuring that made Google a subsidiary of a newly created parent company called Alphabet. As part of the change, Page became CEO of Alphabet and Sundar Pichai, a trusted lieutenant to Page who was running Android and most of the company's other products, became CEO of Google. Soon after, Pichai promoted Lockheimer to senior vice president of Android. Lockheimer also oversees Chrome OS software for laptops and Chromecast, Google's devices for video and audio streaming.

According to colleagues and former Google employees, Lockheimer's approach to Android and its partners is breezy and lighthearted. It's all about trying to lessen the tension that comes with running the most intense and complicated web of designers, engineers, outside developers and hardware partners in technology -- with each side angling for its own best interest. It's also about figuring out how to get more Android users and hardware makers to adopt the latest version of the software.


The Android team circa December 2008. When they started, the team only had about 20 members, says Lockheimer.

Courtesy Andy Rubin

Take it from Hugo Barra, who was Android's vice president of product until he left Google in 2013 to become vice president of global for Xiaomi, a Chinese phone maker with handsets that run Android. Now when he meets with Lockheimer, he's on the other side of the table.

"He's the exact opposite of every other technology leader out there," says Barra, referring to Lockheimer's low-key persona. "Sometimes you have to remind yourself that he's the key executive at Google these days."

The 1 percent

Android is key to Google's future success. It's fundamental to the company's virtual reality efforts and to Google's juggernaut search service, which needs to evolve as people spend less time on desktop computers and more time on their phones.

Over the last several years, Google has polished Android by adding blockbuster features, including last year's Now On Tap, a service that anticipates what you might need based on your location or the time of day.

The rub: The vast majority of Android users can't use many of the software's newest features. That's because only 1.2 percent are using the latest version, Android 6.0, also known as Marshmallow. The majority of users, about 35 percent, use Android 4.4, called KitKat, which is about two-and-a-half years old. (Google always names its Android updates after sweets, but KitKat got its name because Lockheimer loves the chocolate bar, says Android co-founder Andy Rubin. "We proceeded to fill Hiroshi's office with a few thousand of them on launch day," he recalls.)

By comparison, iOS 9, released in September, is on 77 percent of Apple's gadgets. Apple frequently cites what it calls Android's "fragmentation" problem as the reason mobile app developers and customers should focus on the iPhone and iPad.

The slow uptake of Android updates "has been frustrating, to be honest," says Lockheimer, who has a boyish appearance, except for a streak of gray along the front of his otherwise jet-black hair. We're sitting in a conference room with walls splashed orange in Building 43, the main hub of Google's sprawling Mountain View, California, headquarters, about a 35-minute drive south of San Francisco.

The updates get stalled because they typically come courtesy of hardware makers and wireless carriers. Google provides the software, but partners like Samsung often add their own flourishes. Then wireless carriers test the software and are in charge of pushing out the upgrades to phone users.

"People don't update to the latest and greatest, so we as developers can't use the latest features," says Aakash Sareen, co-founder of CopperMobile, which makes enterprise software. That's why CopperMobile only takes advantage of features offered in 2011's Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich, or earlier.

Lockheimer understands the problem, which is why Google is putting more effort into its Nexus program -- the closest the company comes to making its own branded phone. Those phones use a version of Android's that not altered; it is the way Google intended the software to look and feel. Google works with a different phone maker each year to build the next Nexus and has a major hand in the design process. Last year, Lockheimer and his team worked with LG and China-based Huawei to build the Nexus 5X and 6P, which run Marshmallow.

There have been reports Google is trying to tighten its grip on the Nexus program, giving partners even less say in the design process. Lockheimer won't comment on that but does suggest that Google is ruling out making its own phones, top to bottom, like Apple does with the iPhone. (Google bought Motorola's phone business and decided to sell it to Lenovo two years later, after all.)

Google, says Lockheimer, decides to make only hardware that people can't really find elsewhere, like its Chromecast video-streaming device, which was pretty novel when it came out in 2013. By contrast, the market has phones covered, he says. "Phones are good."

Tokyo to the 'Plex

Lockheimer came to the US in 1993, when he was 18, and immediately missed home. Of mixed Japanese and German descent, he grew up in Tokyo and left to attend Rice University in Houston.

Texas was nothing like Tokyo and he wasn't happy. He went there to study architecture (buildings, not software), but didn't end up attending classes. Instead, he spent most of his time in the computer lab where he became enamored with a Unix workstation, which he'd never seen before. He dropped out of college after a few months and moved back to Japan to learn how to program on a Mac.

Eventually, he moved to California. Rubin had a startup called Danger, which created the Sidekick, the first smartphone that truly embraced the Internet. He hired Lockheimer.


Members of the Android team -- Mike Cleron, Rich Miner, Steve Horowitz, Ethan Beard, Hiroshi Lockheimer and Andy Rubin -- at an airport lounge in July 2006.

Courtesy Andy Rubin

Rubin says Lockheimer, a college dropout and self-taught developer, intrigued him.

"It was really a combination of his background and engineering horsepower that led to us recruiting him," Rubin says. "He's smarter than anyone in the room."

In 2003, Rubin left Danger for his follow-up act, a little company called Android. Two years later, Google bought it for around $50 million. Rubin tapped Lockheimer shortly after and signed him on as Android's first hire after its co-founders.

In those early days, Android was a tiny company. The team was made up of about 20 people, who kept things very informal. During a meeting with Peter Chou, HTC's then-CEO, Rubin showed off a remote control helicopter and accidentally crashed it, Lockheimer remembers. And when the team first pitched consumer electronics giant Samsung on Android, they got a "lukewarm reaction," recalls Rubin.

Google won't say how big the Android team is now. A spokeswoman tells me that because their work touches several different parts of the company, it's hard to know exactly how many people are working on the software.

But what they do know is that growth has brought on some headaches. The European Union is investigating Android in an antitrust probe, asking if Google's business practices with its software partners are anti-competitive. Also, Apple sued Samsung over its use of Android and prompted Jobs to warn that he'd go "thermonuclear" on Android to take down what he saw as a copycat of Apple's software.

Lockheimer tells me he had the "pleasure" of testifying in the Samsung legal battle. As for Jobs' explosive threat, he's unwavering.

"I know what I know," Lockheimer says. "We were focused on our own products."

Jokes on jokes

Even though Lockheimer is technically the new Android boss, he's been calling the shots from the ground for a long time and has always handled relationships with most of Android's partners, says Barra.

The biggest boon in officially giving Lockheimer the top job is continuity. After Rubin left the Android team in 2013 to head Google's nascent robotics efforts, Pichai took over Android. (Rubin left Google altogether in 2014.) But day to day, Lockheimer ran the show, consulting with Pichai as needed, says one former Google employee who worked closely with him.

All the different Android versions through the years

See all photos

It also helps that Lockheimer is so well liked. When he was promoted to a vice president role in 2011, there was a lot of joy when the memo went around the office, says Barra.

"That email sent massive waves of cheering throughout Google," he recalls. "It was the most celebrated VP promotion I've ever seen."

That temperament helps in situations with short fuses. In 2012, the night before Google was set to debut Android Jelly Bean at its annual I/O conference for developers, the team met at San Francisco's Moscone Center to run through the keynote speech. But it was behind schedule and the team was anxious, recalls Barra.

Lockheimer, ever the diplomat, came in and helped rewrite the script without hurting anyone's feelings.

He plays the same role at meetings with partners, where the stakes are often high. "Those can get pretty intense," says Brian Rakowski, Android's vice president of product management. "He'll make a joke to lighten the mood."

Everyone I talked to for this story said you can't get through a meeting with Lockheimer without hearing at least one joke. I know firsthand they're right.

When I ask about his promotion, he says: "Well I'm actually the CEO. I just haven't told anyone yet."

On naming the next Android update, he quips: "I'm just starting rumors now. Last week I tweeted something about national Nutella day."

As for Android, Google has expanded it to power not just phones and tablets, but TVs, smartwatches and car dashboards. When I asked Rubin, the man who started it all, about the biggest challenges ahead for Android, he demurred. But he did say the software is in good hands.

"Wherever Hiroshi takes it," Rubin says, "he'll likely be right."

Let's not rule out selfie sticks.

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