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Google and Android bet big on IIT alumnus

San Francisco, March 14: The joke quickly made the rounds of Twitter: top Google Inc executive and IIT alumnus Sundar Pichai had been elected pope — of Android.

There were no puffs of white smoke as there were for Pope Francis, just a blog post on Wednesday from Google co-founder and chief executive Larry Page announcing the major change of the guard at the Internet giant.

The Chennai-born Pichai had been tapped to run the world’s most popular mobile operating system. He is taking over from Andy Rubin, who has stepped down as head of Android.

Pichai’s new job — making sure nothing slows Android’s momentum — has thrust him into the spotlight.

Pichai got his bachelor’s degree in technology from the Indian Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in science from Stanford University and a master of business administration degree from Wharton.

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

Pichai’s ascension comes at a crucial time for Android. Its growth has begun to flatten, and Google executives have begun to worry about Samsung’s dominance of Android. The South Korean company sells about 40 per cent of the gadgets that use Android software.

Some see Pichai’s takeover of Android as a signal that Google wants to co-ordinate or merge its two operating systems: Chrome and Android. Pichai is also the senior vice-president of Chrome.

Pichai has turned the Chrome browser into a breakout success, giving Internet Explorer and Firefox a run for their money.

“In 2008, people asked whether the world really needed another browser. Today Chrome has hundreds of millions of happy users and is growing fast, thanks to its speed, simplicity and security,” Page wrote.

Under Pichai, the Chrome operating system has found its way into products such as the Chromebook Pixel.

“Sundar has a talent for creating products that are technically excellent yet easy to use — and he loves a big bet,” Page said.

Pichai made his bet on Google when he joined the company in 2004. He had worked at Applied Materials and McKinsey & Co. He gained more visibility in 2011 when Twitter tried to poach him. Pichai decided to stay with Google.

Google has been in a confusing position because it has two unrelated operating systems: Chrome and Android.

At first, Google said they were separate: Chrome was for computers and the Web, and Android was for touch-screen mobile devices and apps.

But the lines among devices have blurred. Now, some computers (like the Chromebook Pixel that Google introduced last month) have touch screens, and people use mobile devices the way they used to use computers.

The personnel change is a sign that Google now sees the need to somehow co-ordinate or merge the two operating systems.

Though Android has been wildly successful, with 750 million devices activated worldwide, computers running Chrome’s operating system have not.

At a media event to introduce the new Chromebook, Pichai drew less of a distinction between the two operating systems than Google executives had in the past.

“So far, we have been in a world which has been pretty straightforward: Android phones and tablets and Chrome laptops,” Pichai said. “But lines do blur.”

“The way we think about it internally,” he said, “is as a user, you sign in to both these devices, you use search, Maps, Gmail” and other Google products. “All your Google services work seamlessly across devices.”

The company did not provide any details about how Chrome or Android might change under the new leadership.

Pichai has had a fast rise at Google and has experience developing hardware, a new area of focus for the company. In addition to Chrome and Android, he also oversees Google Apps, like Gmail and Drive, for consumers and businesses.

BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis said Pichai has a weighty responsibility. “He had better not screw it up,” Gillis said. “Android is a big success right now.”

Google did not say why Rubin was replaced. Despite Android’s success, it is at a crossroads as device-making partners like Samsung and Amazon increasingly become competitors.

Page praised Rubin and said he would stay at the company in a new position, though he did not say what it would be. But there were hints that Rubin could join Google X, the company’s lab for creating new technologies like driverless cars, Google glasses and other wearable technologies. The glasses run Android.

Page wrote, “Andy, more moonshots please!” Google refers to Google X as a lab for “moonshots,” or world-changing ideas.