Google’s Eric Chu Sheds Light on Android

Eric Chu – Google’s Mobile Platform Program Manager and head honcho for the Android Developers Challenge – spent some time with us to discuss Android, shedding some interesting light along the way.

First on the menu was the composition of the ADCs Top 50 Apps. The undeniable majority of apps, if you had to categorize them, fell into the “Social Networking” department. This seems like somewhat of a conundrum since Google’s Android, OpenSocial and FriendConnect hope to make things simpler through openness and consolidation, yet too many Social Networks leans towards an annoyingly fragmented environment.

Apparently thats not a sign of judge preference but rather a free market, “Developers in many ways have voted and decided that Android is a great platform to build Geo Social Networking type applications. So the number of submissions that came in that area dwarfed many of the other areas,” said Chu.

Obviously, Social Networking Apps would therefore stand a greater chance of being in the Top 50 (all else being equal.) But it’s also fair to say that ALL of these social networking applications won’t likely gain traction. There is less competition in niche applications that serve specific, previously unmet needs, where developers could become an early favorite. Examples would be GolfPlay and Cooking Capsules which you can read more about from our list of ADC Round 1 Winners.

But this whole “Top 50″ thing is somewhat misleading and Mr. Chu happily clarified, “The number of great apps far exceeded the Top 50.”

According to Chu we’ll get a taste for the other 1500+ applications soon enough, “That is why we’re working on a Gallery that will enable… great apps, great ideas that did not make it in the Top 50, in many cases by a very very narrow margin… to showcase what they’re doing.”

And if you think about it, 50 great applications for a brand new platform compared to the ZERO applications you have now is an immediate and amazing offering. Knowing that the number of consumer-worthy apps greatly exceeded 50 is exciting – and it won’t be long before we’re exposed to a larger variety.

The Android Application Gallery will be an organized consortium of categorized applications that include screenshots and descriptions submitted by each developer.

But wait a minute – there are already a handful of websites and services dedicated to showcasing Android Applications, for example SlideMe.org. One might assume these could face an early extinction with the release of an iPhone-like application store from Google.

That may not be the case. The Application Gallery will NOT be used to distribute and disseminate applications but instead, act as a podium for developers to showcase their Android Applications whether they’re in the Top 50 or not.

There IS another component that the OHA is working on that WILL provide a simple distribution model for applications, but nothing specific that Chu was able to disclose. Regardless, Chu seemed open to the idea that other sources (like SlideMe) could provide value: “If there are other people investing to try and solve the same problem – that’s great. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether there are 1, 2, 3 or X amount of alternatives, whats more important from our perspective is that developers have ways, a very simple way, one or multiple ways to get the application in front of subscribers, and subscribers have an easy way to find an application and get it into the device.”

Even sans audio, you can sense the calm hesitation, the reconfiguration of the sentence to ensure the statement was both accurate and inclusive. The fact of the matter is Google isn’t going to try to profit from the distribution of applications… they just want to make sure there is a simple way for people to learn about, (and in the future acquire), these applications. They are happy for others to spread the word… but they’re not going to wait for someone else to do that for them.

I suggested that Google is in a somewhat precarious position in attempting to balance the varying interests and priorities of it’s numerous stakeholders. You’ve got the carriers, the handset manufacturers, chip suppliers, developers, consumers, etc… it’s quite an overwhelming responsibility to have that “mediator” responsibility.

Chu didn’t see it that way at all, “So far we have received a very, very warm reception from everybody. And in some cases they may have some questions to get a better understanding of what it means on a detail level. But once we sit down with them to help them understand how [what] we’re constructing is open, but open does not mean that their network or device is going to be compromised – then they feel a lot more comfortable with that.”

I pressed him about the recent Developer backlash. After learning that an updated SDK would be made available only to ADC Round 1 Winners, and that they had to sign an NDA promising to keep it’s content secret, many of the remaining developers felt alienated.

Here they were, a group of developers who were the first to embrace the vision of Android. And even though Chu admitted that “the number of great apps far exceeded the Top 50,” only the Top 50 were given access to this VIP SDK release.

“The best thing we can do, right now, is work with the Open Handset Alliance companies to get the platform completed as quickly as possible. The more we get distracted in trying to support everybody, in trying to talk to everybody, the slower we are going to be in getting the platform completed – and fewer people can take advantage of it.”

Fair enough. Being a leader inherently involves making tough decisions that not everyone is going to like. I’m all for the goal of working as quickly as possible to get Android into our hands!

A couple other difficult questions that Chu answered brilliantly involved the LiMo Foundation’s competing OS and how Open Android actually is:

On the LiMo Foundation
“It’s always good to see companies working together to create technology to enable the entire ecosystem. From that perspective, we think any initiative that’s focusing on opening up the mobile ecosystem that’s a great thing.”

On how open Android will actually be…
“When you ship an Android based device, there is no requirement that you must ship those exact same set of code that you make available to everybody. As I mentioned, OEMs and Carriers have full flexibility in how they customize the platform. So, for example if they don’t like this chunk of code, they can replace it with something else.”

Full flexibility will be a huge (initial) plus for the big carriers such as AT&T who will still want to distribute their proprietary and revenue generating applications and options. This should give all carriers a solid reason to adopt at least one Android handset. And the proliferation of Android will prohibit carriers from adding/deleting/replacing code that reverts to the old ways of limiting the choice/capabilities of consumers. If they do… consumers will just leave for another carrier that embraces the true spirit and openness of Android.

So where do the goals of Google fall in this whole Android thing? In perhaps the most interesting statement of the interview, Chu had a very definitive statement when asked about the monetization strategy of Android:

“There is no monetization strategy for Android, from the Google perspective. We are literally doing this because we believe there is an opportunity to create an open mobile ecosystem. And we believe now is the time to do it.”

Come on… really? We aren’t naive enough to think that Google is developing Android just because they love the world so much – are we? I asked again, “So there is really no monetization strategy for Android?”

He leveled with me a bit, “I think it’s not just us, right? We have 30-some members of the OHA who share the same vision. Obviously they’re not just doing this just for Google’s benefit. They’re doing this because they believe that what we’re trying to do, the approach that we’re taking together, is the approach that will lead to success not just for the initiative but for them also from a business perspective.”

And so my mistake was uncovered… Android, the OHA and Google are 3 very, very different entities that you can’t just use interchangeably. No, Google doesn’t have a monetization strategy for Android itself, but will Google as a corporation derive revenue from the success of Android? That’s a different story…

“Google has a corporation sees huge strategic value in making sure that the mobile space has an open alternative,” explained Chu, “And we’re investing to make sure that Android is one of the open alternatives that consumers, carriers and manufacturers will choose.”

Again, he emphasized the fact more than two times: “There is no monetization strategy for Android itself.” It sounds silly. At first, it might sound like PR, political-talk mumbo jumbo. But Just think about it for a moment.

The time for mobile is here and now. Google knew this time was coming. They’ve carefully positioned themselves with industry leading products and services that are also free (Google Search, Google Maps, Google Docs, etc). Google itself, prior to Android, already stood for the concepts of open and free.

Android simply ensures that the mobile ecosystem will be open and that consumers have a variety and choice in the new mobile experience – something Google only watched from the sideline before Android. As long as that choice exists there is a very, very, very good chance that developers will choose to integrate Google’s products and services in applications and consumers will therefore be exposed to Google ads in ways previously non-existent.

Not to say that Google won’t leverage their role, pushing for default inclusion in shipped Android handsets. But does it really matter? One way or another, as long as the mobile ecosystem is open, you’re going to experience Google. Whether doing a web search on your mobile handset or using 3rd party applications that utilize Google Maps API (which there will be plenty of), Android is Google’s promise to immediately open the doors of mobile potential to consumers, and as they walk through, they’ll be reintroduced to their good friend: Mr. Google revenue streams.

He never directly answered the question I threw out there, but I think I’ve finally learned enough to accurately guess the answer to my own assumptive question: “You’re basically helping to drive an industry because you can benefit from the industry’s success by itself?”

I’ll let you decide for yourself…

Thanks again to Eric Chu and all the folks at Google who made this interview possible.

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