Is Matias Duarte the man to make or break Android?

Technology journalists are rarely a sentimental bunch, but the mere mention of WebOS is enough to make some teary eyed. Bandied around like an unloved puppy, the former Palm platform was this week sold on to LG which hopes to find it a place in smartphones, tablets and primarily TVs. HP, its former owner, is typically cast as the villain who snatched WebOS away from more suitable buyers during Palm’s demise and slowly ran one of tech’s most promising platforms into the ground through ridiculous decision making and neglect. Prior to the sale, HP’s last act was to throw WebOS to the open source community to rip it apart like wolves. Yes WebOS’s story is a sorry one, but the man behind it could yet have an even more dramatic tale to tell.

The Webslinger

Matias Duarte was just 35 and dressed in a shocking orange shirt when he demoed WebOS for the first time at CES 2009. Duarte was the lead developer and showed off features that not only caused shock and awe at the time, but which are still passed off by the likes of Apple, Google and BlackBerry as revolutionary today. Most recently the last of these went to great pains in its BB10 launch to highlight its ‘true’ multitasking, swipe gestures which originate from the bezel, card-style app switching and the ‘Hub’ which aggregates SMS, emails and social networking alerts into a single thread. In 2009 WebOS already had them all.

Meanwhile WebOS’ ‘unobtrusive’ banner-style notifications, integration of social networking data with contacts and ‘Think Ahead’ all-in-one phone, Internet and Wikipedia search were mimicked by both Android and iOS less than 12 months later. In all Duarte is named as inventor of 18 of WebOS’ primary patent applications and was given full control over its evolution. As such it was no surprise to see Duarte leave Palm less than a month after it was acquired by HP in 2010. His destination was an obvious one: Director of User Experience for Android.

Background

Moving to a company with near-limitless resources and a functional rather than beautiful product range which desperately needed a makeover seemed like the ideal fit for Duarte, but his rise to the top of the software designer tree had long looked inevitable.

At just 23 the Chilean had been lead designer on Atari’s Phase Zero hovercraft simulator, at 24 he was vice president of design at game studio MagicArts and between 2000 and 2005 Duarte was director of design at Danger. Here he created the platform of the same name for T-Mobile’s hugely successful Hiptop and SideKick phones and won Wired’s 2002 Industrial Designer Rave Award beating competition from Apple's Industrial Design Team which had been nominated for its work on the flat panel iMac. In 2007 Palm came calling.

The subsequent switch to Android delighted Google’s executives, they believed they had found their very own Jonathan Ive.

Do Androids Dream?

Certainly early signs are that Google has the right man. Arriving in May 2010 Duarte’s first challenge was developing Android 3.0 ‘Honeycomb’, the release which controversially fractured Android into phone and tablet segments. Duarte’s instructions were to design a more beautiful and intuitive tablet platform, re-stitch it with the phone OS carrying forward his design changes for Android 4.0 and pursue three key goals: larger screened devices, continued evolution of Android, and a better user interface.

Coincidentally May 2010 was a key month for Android. It was the month analysts reported Google’s OS has overtaken the iPhone’s market share in the US for the first time, though it still remained significantly behind leader BlackBerry. Skip forward to 2012 and Android has over 70 per cent of the global smartphone market, Apple has 20 per cent and Windows Phone and the new BlackBerry 10 platform are left desperately fighting each other to stay relevant miles behind in third place.

Over this time Apple’s troubled Siri and Maps launches have seen iOS stall, but a huge amount of credit for Android’s rise also goes to Duarte as he adds increasing amounts of the polish and smart design seen in WebOS into Android 4.x. A key moment came with Android 4.1 ‘Jelly Bean’ in September which saw the realisation of ‘Project Butter’. This ended the previously choppy navigation associated with Android and made the whole platform run at a silky smooth 60 frames per second. Google was suddenly pushing beauty as a key selling point.

After Project Butter was released Duarte commented “we still have a lot of work to do. Personally I feel like I’ve gotten only about a third of the way to where I want to be with regards to consistency, responsiveness and polish.” The same month Duarte was recognised by Co.Design as ‘One of 50 Designers Shaping the Future’.

Blade Runner

There was a further upside to Duarte’s design lead revolution: suddenly Google’s own-brand Nexus products were in massive demand. This was a radical turnaround. In July 2010, just months after Duarte’s arrival then Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced sales of its debut Nexus One would stop and that Google had no interest in making more self-branded hardware. “The idea a year and a half ago was to do the Nexus One to try to move the phone platform hardware business forward,” he told the Telegraph. “It clearly did. It was so successful, we didn’t have to do a second one. We would view that as positive but people criticised us heavily for that. I called up the board and said: ‘Ok, it worked. Congratulations – we’re stopping’."

But Google wasn’t stopping. By the end of the year a Nexus S was launched, followed by a Galaxy Nexus in November 2011 - though while garnering good reviews, sales of both remained niche. Exactly one year later the Nexus 4 was unveiled and launched with a breakthrough price point and Android 4.2, the latest, smoothest and most polished version of Android to date. Suddenly sales went through the roof and Google was lambasted for being unable to keep up with demand as stock ran out for weeks at a time.

Much like the Apple business model, slick hardware and even slicker software had now combined and ‘Google phones’ were being propelled into the big leagues. Duarte and his designer team appeared to have led Android into a new era… but it now looks only to be the calm before the storm.

All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain

Google had forgotten something important: a beautiful Android operating system was great for consumers, but a big problem for its handset manufacturing partners. For years Android had been the ugly but powerful OS which the likes of HTC, LG, Motorola, ZTE, Huawei and Samsung could adopt and polish with their own overlaid skins. This added a much needed sheen and gave each handset maker their own distinctive Android look and differentiator.

Skin names like ‘Sense’, ‘MotoBlur’ and ‘TouchWiz’ were headline features and worn like a badge of honour by these companies, but now there was a growing clamour for ‘vanilla’ Android. Customers wanted the unblemished, pure Android experience unburdened by these unnecessary customisations which suddenly served only to delay compatibility with new versions of Android as the skins were painstakingly updated to fit. A scary vision was emerging for these handset makers: waves of identical Android phones which removed customers’ need for brand loyalty and began a price war. It was all Duarte’s fault.

Worse still Google’s confidence in Duarte’s vision was starting to see it throw its weight around. Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin began making increasingly vocal complaints about the fragmentation of Android caused by custom skins which were robbing the vast majority of customers from enjoying the company’s latest platform innovations. They had a point, as of January 2013, Android 2.3 ‘Gingerbread’ remained by far the dominant software version of active Android handsets at nearly 40 per cent. By contrast Android 4.x has only just passed the 10 per cent marker despite being on the market for more than a year.

While tech savvy users were happy to hack new versions of Android onto their phones, the simplest solution for others is to buy a Nexus device. This puts Google increasingly in competition with its partners, especially given it spent $12.5bn with the completion of its deal to buy Motorola in the last year. Google had always maintained the deal was for purely about attaining patents, but as talk of a mysterious Google ‘X Phone’ mounts for the first time the company hinted at other plans. Addressing a question at Mobile World Congress about whether Google would eventually produce Motorola made Nexus handsets, Android engineering executive Hiroshi Lockheimer coyly replied: “Anything can happen”.

The Skin I Live In

Even more concerning for Google is that as it pushes for Duarte’s handiwork to be the standard on all Android handsets, it has found its biggest partner won’t budge. Korean giant Samsung has become the undisputed king of Android phones and is responsible for the sale of almost 40 per cent of all Android devices. Paramount to Samsung’s success, however, is not Android but TouchWiz - the skin Samsung puts over Android phones and tablets and applies to its market leading TVs. For the casual consumer Android’s existence under the surface of Samsung products is unknown, the unified TouchWiz experience across all Samsung products is the primary selling point.

Should Google push too hard Samsung is also preparing its own mobile operating system, Tizen, which - you guessed it - is furnished with TouchWiz. The average consumer would find it hard to tell apart. As such Google may hold the threat of Motorola over its other partners, but it doesn’t hold it over Samsung. And the problem is spreading because Samsung isn’t the only dissenter. Hard baked into Amazon’s Android tablets is the retailer’s custom skin centred on buying apps and media from its stores. If that option were vetoed by Google it would clearly lose another major partner.

Which means it all comes back to design. Had Android remained the powerful ugly ducking none of this would have arisen and Google would be grateful its partners took the time to apply the make-up while Google focused on the functionality. It all changed with Duarte, Google’s Jonathan Ive, who has convinced his employers and their customers that Android is now a beautiful swan that is no longer in need of further touch ups.

It leaves Google to make arguably its biggest Android decision to date: lay down the law and go to war with its partners or stifle Duarte’s vision and continue to let third party skins prolong outdated versions of Android and rob consumers of its latest innovations. Once again Matias Duarte is upsetting the status quo and this time the fall out will affect us all.