Imagine if your job was to create and manage products that billions of people count on to work perfectly every single day. Sound like a pressure cooker? Well, welcome to the world of Sundar Pichai, the man who runs Google’s core businesses including search, Gmail, Android, and is responsible for the great bulk of Google’s $67 billion in annual revenue.
Though little-known outside the tech world, Pichai, 43, is considered to be the No. 2 person at Google (GOOGL) after CEO Larry Page. And yet Pichai’s demeanor completely belies his role. Soft-spoken with a gentle smile, the whip thin Pichai approaches me dressed in a dark hoodie and jeans, a walking personification of mellow. You might mistake him for just another super-smart, midlevel Google engineer, which is what he was when he was put in charge of Chrome, Google's browser that launched a mere eight years ago. That blockbuster success and, more importantly, his ability to understand and direct Google’s businesses and super-brainiac team of talent, elevated him to where he is today, which is actually giving the keynote speech at Google I/O, the company’s Super Bowl-like developers’ conference held each year in San Francisco. I caught up with Pichai behind the scenes to pick his brain.
While it’s probably the case that there are no blockbusters being introduced this year, there is some cool stuff, like an update of a virtual reality product called Google Cardboard and Android Pay, which lets you to pay for things on your phone without even opening an app. Pichai is quick to point out, though, that “it is always a delightful surprise [when a product becomes a hit.] You never know when you’re working on something where it’ll turn out.”
New photo service
But if there is one potential biggie, it might be Google Photos, a service that stores and organizes all your photos and videos into a sortable, shareable stack, for free. (It's comparable to Apple's photos app and Yahoo's (YHOO) Flickr service). It also automatically slots your photos into categories like "beach," "Halloween" and "kids." Says Pichai: “One of the things we have invested in more than anyone else is machine learning, a way by which you can use computers to understand patterns and make sense of it for users. We are bringing that insight into photos. Just this year alone they’ll be over a trillion photos which are being taken and shared on mobile. [Customers] want to be able to find anything instantly, so it is a search-like problem and so we are bringing our ability to organize that information – in this case photos – and making it great for users.”
Google’s photo capability used to be wrapped in its social network, Google +, but this new offering, Google Photos will be a standalone feature. Does that suggest that Google +, which has struggled to gain traction is, in jeopardy? Pichai says no, adding, “You will hear more about what we are doing with Google+ later this year…we are working hard on it.”
The eye-catching Google Photos demo I saw was on mobile, of course, where all the action is in the computing world these days. For Pichai and Google this is a bit of a mixed bag. A billion people now use the company’s Android system worldwide — it’s on 4,000 unique devices from more than 400 manufacturers. Android has some 80% market share on phones, with Apple (AAPL) owning most of the balance. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Apple has taken the high-end, more profitable slice of the market, while Android phones in China and elsewhere in Asia often don’t have Google apps — sold through its Google Play app store — and services on them (the Chinese government has shut Google out of the country), which is how the company makes money on Android.
“First of all, most of the phones in China are shipped based on Android,” says Pichai. “We would love to serve Chinese users better so we’re constantly looking for more ways to do that. You know we are thinking about things like how do we bring Google Play in China, and so we are constantly looking for opportunities.”
Of course, Pichai is still bullish on Android. “We think we have a long ways to go. There are seven billion people in the world. And I think phones are the first time most people will have access to a modern computing device. With Android we want to enable that for people. Computing is evolving beyond phones and people are using it in context across many scenarios, be it in their television, be it in their car, be it something they wear on their wrist or even something much more immersive. We want to support all those use cases, so we’re building it as a foundation helping all of this evolve so that it works better for users.”
Thinking about the big issues
Pichai, who attended the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in India and then received a master's in engineering and materials science at Stanford and an MBA at Wharton, worked at McKinsey and Applied Materials (AMAT) before joining Google in 2004. Though he’s strictly speaking a product guy, he has to think about the big issues at Google, too. For instance, I point out to him that Google is still a business primarily based on advertising for its revenue, which is a tough business.
“We are open to all models. We want to do what works right for users,” Pichai says. “We strive to provide products for everyone in the world. Take a look at search; today over a billion people use it and they’ve used it for the last 10 years and they get a lot of value out of it. We make it free to users because of advertising. So I think it’s important to remember if you want services to work well for people at scale, advertising is an important way we think about monetizing our services... For example, if you’re [an] educational institution, you can have a subscription service to Google apps and we don’t do advertising there. So we just want to give users what they want in the context as to how they are willing to consume it.”
The core mission of serving the user and improving their day-to-day lives is something Pichar emphasizes repeatedly – whether that’s through Google’s search engine, self-driving cars or sharing photographs.
And how does he decide what to focus the company on? Pichar and his colleagues call it the "toothbrush test": Do you use it at least a couple of times a day? That's the standard for deciding if something will make a big enough difference for people. Cars are one big example. They're used daily and, Pichar points out, there are over 33,000 driving-related deaths every year in the U.S. "So we look at that and is it an important problem for us to work on where technology can make a difference,” he says.
Driverless cars, and more broadly autos, is obviously a huge market that Google has studied closely. It’s another billion-customer opportunity for the company, but of course there’s no guarantee of success. It’s now Sundar Pichai’s job to figure out if it makes sense for Google to push into businesses like this. CEO Larry Page, Google shareholders and the world will be watching. No pressure there.
To watch the full interview with Sundar Pichai, click here.