By Jim O'Reilly
Andy Rubin, who led the Android division of Google, and more recently its robotics programs, is leaving the company. The Wall Street Journal reports he plans to launch his own incubator for robotics hardware startups.
Rubin joined Google in 2005 with the acquisition of Android Inc., where he was a co-founder. He led the Android business until 2013, when he stepped down to run Google’s robotics and drone programs.
This group has made several acquisitions in the past year, including Titan Aerospace and Boston Dynamics. In August, it demonstrated "Project Wing", a prototype delivery drone that takes aim at Amazon's Prime Air drone program.
Just after taking over the robotics group, Rubin described Google's efforts in the area as a "moonshot" that had a 10-year vision for its research and development effort. James Kuffner, a Google research scientist with 20 years' experience in the field, will replace Rubin.
Google CEO Larry Page commented in an emailed statement: "I want to wish Andy all the best with what's next. With Android he created something truly remarkable—with a billion plus happy users. Thank you."
Speculation about Rubin’s reason for leaving is somewhat premature, but one analyst suggested the latest management reorganization likely has something to do with it. Coincidentally, the man who replaced Rubin as head of the Android operation, Sundar Pichai, was promoted last week to control a broad spectrum of Google products, including Android, Google Chrome, Google Apps, Google+, Google Maps, Research, Search and others.
It looks like the reorganization put Rubin reporting to Pichai, instead of to Larry Page. Pichai’s new ownership of 'Research' suggests that is, in fact, the case. This might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Scott Strawn at IDC concurs with this view. "The latest reorganization was probably the catalyst for Ruben’s leaving." He agreed that "Pichai is effectively the COO of Google for all intents and purposes, while Larry Page has always expressed strong interest in the skunk works and research programs."
Changing management priorities and an evolving culture may have also have been factors in Rubin's decision to move on to new ventures, said Patrick Moorhead, founder of Moor Insights and Strategy.
"Google is maturing as a company. One decade it was a small startup, the next it is a behemoth," he said. "This is creating a more difficult environment to innovate and there’s new emphasis on ROI for the 'science projects.' It's quite possible Andy didn't like the rigidity and is finding it time to move on."
Asked what the recent reorganizations mean for Google, Moorhead said: "Larry Page is making himself more innovative by effectively putting Pichai in the role of COO. This gives him free time to think big thoughts. Pichai is a deliverer, which should result in better program execution and revenue growth”.
In a sense, Google is going through the maturing cycle that all former startups follow. The founders reach a point where their skill sets no longer align well with the company's expansionist goals, and often this leads to C-level churning.
One can also only guess what would have happened if Rubin had stayed with Microsoft after its acquisition of his former company, Danger Inc. Today, Android enjoys the lion's share of the smartphone market, having moved up from just 4 percent market share in 2009 to over 80 percent today.
Of course, there is a silver lining for Redmond as it receives a substantial license fee on each Android sale. However, Microsoft hasn't, as yet, succeeded in the mobile device business with its own smartphones and tablets.