Google, the Populist?

A participant examines the so-called 'Project Cardboard' which converts an android smartphone into a stereoscope with a cardboard construction during the developers conference Google I/O in San Francisco, USA, 25 June 2014.
Even its high-end devices are made out of cardboard. Photo: Andrej Sokolow/dpa/Corbis

When I think of humble, salt-of-the-earth companies, Google's usually not at the top of the list. This is the same Google, after all, that was started by two Stanford PhD students, that still brags about the number of top-100 universities that have switched to Gmail, and that hires the best and the brightest to develop self-driving cars, smart watches, $1,500 face-computers, and all other manner of high-end consumer gadgets. (Not to mention the same Google that half of San Francisco thinks is turning the city into a Scrooge McDuck money palace.)

But I spent most of yesterday at Google's annual I/O developer conference, and it's clear that, despite all the high-end wizardry that usually gets top billing at events like these, Google is making a discernible play for the masses.

The problem with making statements about Google's corporate focus is that Google is so damned big. It's trying, almost literally, to do everything all at once, and it almost never focuses on one thing to the exclusion of anything else. But judging from yesterday's I/O keynote, and conversations I had with company insiders at the event, it's clear that Google sees Android as the biggest part of its near-term future.

Just look at who gave I/O's keynote speech. Last year, it was CEO Larry Page, who has historically considered Android just one of Google's many exciting products. This year, the keynote was given by Mr. Android himself, Sundar Pichai, who is also gracing the cover of this week's Bloomberg Businessweek — a sign that Google is positing Pichai as a superstar within the company, and perhaps an eventual successor to Page. The theme of Pichai's talk was, of course, Android, which Google is trying to jam into everything: phones, tablets, watches, cars, TVs. And as attendees filed into the room past a giant green Android mascot, into seats flanking a prototype Android car, to watch Android's head give a speech about Android, the conclusion was inescapable: For the moment, Google is an Android company, and not the other way around.

Android's main advantage over other mobile operating systems, of course, is that it's open-source and free to third-party manufacturers, which translates into cheaper devices. This has led Google to a natural focus on the bottom half of the price ladder. Apple's iPhones may have a lock on young, coastal users in the U.S., but Google seems content to compete everywhere else: India, Latin America, Africa — the places where billions of people are getting their first smartphones, tablets, and smart watches, and can be convinced to lock themselves in to Google's software ecosystem.

The most recent example of Google's play for the masses is Android One, a program announced yesterday that will help device-makers produce extremely cheap Android devices for the developing world. The goal is to target countries like India with sub-$100 smartphones that run a stripped-down version of Android. We may never see these devices in the U.S. — and, as such, you probably won't hear much about them in the tech press — but they're as important to Google's future as any of the flashier, more expensive things the company is doing.

Google's populist strategy isn't new, but its success is getting more remarkable. Android currently has a billion active monthly users, more than double Apple's iOS base. And while Apple's more affluent user base gives it a financial leg up — it makes roughly four times as much money from the average iOS user as Google makes from the average Android user — that advantage could be overcome by Android's sheer size.

If the next billion Android users materializes quickly in countries like India and Brazil, it will give Google global reach on a scale that's never existed before. It will mean that 2 billion people — nearly a quarter of the Earth's population — are defaulting to Google search, Google maps, and Google services from their best (and, in many cases, their only) device. That scenario, and the lucrative ad revenue it would produce, is why Google is willing to take on the insane, frustrating task of supporting thousand of devices, running on hundreds of different screen sizes, and making sure they all work at least decently well.

Again, Google's Android focus isn't strictly new. But it's getting more obvious by the day, and it points to an interesting dissonance developing within the company — between what Google is and who it's selling to. As its recent diversity report showed, Google is still a very traditional, elite institution. (Translation: lots of white dudes.) And, as evidenced by the two protesters who interrupted the I/O keynote yesterday, it still has a ways to go to shed its privilege-monster image in the Bay Area. But, at least while Android is growing so explosively, Google is marketing itself to a much less elite group of consumers. That's a business decision, but it could presage a culture shift inside the company. "Don't be evil" was Google's past. "Don't be snobby" could well be its future.