Later today, a 10-foot-tall statue of a lollipop will join sculptures of an ice cream sandwich, a chocolate doughnut, and other confections on the grass in front of Building 44 on Google’s (GOOG) campus in Mountain View, Calif. This is how the news will come of the latest major update to Android, which runs on 85 percent of the world’s smartphones: not with a hyped press conference or long lines outside gadget stores, but with the installation of an oversize lawn ornament.
Lollipop is the 13th major release of Android. But it’s the first to be fully developed under Sundar Pichai, the Google senior vice president and confidant of Chief Executive Officer Larry Page who took over the OS operation last year. Along with Lollipop, Pichai is introducing three Google-designed devices, including the supersize Nexus 6 smartphone, manufactured by Motorola Mobility (MMI) with a fairly gigantic 6-inch screen. (The iPhone 6 Plus display is 5.5 inches.) Pichai hopes the phone will be the first of a series of new Lollipop-powered computers in living rooms, cars, and just about everywhere else. “We aren’t only trying to ship two [products],” he says, obliquely referring to rival Apple’s (AAPL) well-received pair of new iPhones. “We are trying to enable thousands of [products] at the same time.”
Lollipop has arrived during an unusually important moment in Google’s attempt to control the next generation of computing devices. Samsung Electronics(005930:KS), Google’s largest partner, warned on Oct. 6 that it expects to miss its quarterly sales targets because of price cuts for its phones. In Europe, regulators are examining whether Google violates antitrust law by forcing manufacturers that use Android to preinstall its apps. Meanwhile, Apple (AAPL) has gotten rave reviews for iOS 8 as well as for its hot-selling iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. On Oct. 16, Apple will again convene the media to ooh and aah over new iPads. With the new version of Android, Google “has to overcome concerns that there is not parity between Android’s ecosystem and iOS,” says James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research(FORR).
Motorola’s Nexus 6 smartphone has a sleek, curved aluminum back and a crisp organic light-emitting diode screen that the company says can run for hours after charging for just 15 minutes. The phone will go on sale (subsidized) at all major U.S. carriers by the end of the year, when an unlocked version will sell online, full price, for $649. Pichai studiously avoids using the word “phablet” but says the Nexus 6 screen was a function of consumer demand. Similar-size phones now make up 25 percent of Android devices, up from 1 percent three years ago, according to researcher Strategy Analytics. They are particularly popular in Asia. It’s unclear, however, whether customers who now have a supersize option from Apple will still flock to an Android version.
Wisely, Google is continuing to push beyond smartphones. With the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer Asus (2357:TT), it’s also releasing the Nexus Player, a $99 TV set-top box that offers many of the same features as Apple TV and Amazon.com(AMZN)‘s Fire TV. The Player also integrates the functions of Google’s Chromecast, which means users can stream content from their phones or tablets to their HDTV. The company’s new tablet, the Nexus 9, was developed with HTC (2498:TT) and will sell online for $399. It has a $129 keyboard accessory that doubles as a portable battery. Asked whether Google is imitating Microsoft’s (MSFT) keyboard-equipped Surface tablet, Pichai says, “We have definitely been watching all kinds of stuff.” He adds that the goal of the Nexus program isn’t to anoint one must-have smartphone or tablet but to set a benchmark and get the industry to build a critical mass of devices. “We want all kinds of devices for all kinds of people,” he says. “Nexus represents the state of the art, with us guiding the ecosystem toward where we want it to go.”