By Gerry Shih and Edwin Chan
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Andy Rubin, the architect of Android, the world's top-selling mobile operating system, has decided to step down as Google Inc combines mobile software divisions under one roof, the company said on Wednesday.
Google appointed Sundar Pichai, the executive overseeing its Chrome web browser and applications like Google Drive and Gmail, to take over Rubin's responsibilities, hinting at how the company with the dominant Internet search engine intends to address the rise of mobile devices.
In a blog post, Larry Page, Google's chief executive and co-founder, credited Rubin for evangelizing Android several years ago and building it into a free, open-source platform that runs on nearly three-quarters of the world's smartphones and is used by the world's largest handset manufacturers, from Samsung Electronics Co Ltd <005930.KS> to HTC Corp <2498.TW>.
"Having exceeded even the crazy ambitious goals we dreamed of for Android - and with a really strong leadership team in place - Andy's decided it's time to hand over the reins and start a new chapter at Google," Page wrote. "Andy, more moonshots please!
The merger of the Chrome and Android divisions helps resolve a longstanding tension in the Mountain View, California-based company's corporate strategy, and reflects a convergence of mobile and desktop software.
When Google poured resources into launching the Chrome web browser five years ago, the company laid out a vision of the Internet and an ecosystem of Google apps based on the Web. But the Android operating system, acquired by Google in 2005, has also been a runaway success, enabling third-party handset makers like Samsung to overtake Apple Inc while also spawning a massive economy of third-party apps that are only loosely affiliated with Google.
Under Pichai's direction, Google has released several netbook computers using the Chrome operating system. Last month, when Pichai unveiled the Chromebook Pixel, the first Chrome-based laptop with a touch-screen interface, analysts noted that Chrome and Android appeared to be on converging paths.
"You had this Chrome OS and this Android Group that were building in many overlapping products," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner.
Gartenberg argued that despite Android's overwhelming popularity, it is Chrome that remains at the core of Google's strategy.
"For Google, it's not about the platform, but the ecosystem," Gartenberg said. "They're more concerned long-term about Google Docs, Google Voice, Google Books, and less about helping Samsung sell more phones."
Chrome, Gartenberg added, "is the purest expression of Google's philosophy."
Page was mum on Rubin's future role. Some analysts speculated that Rubin, an executive with a knack for developing products, could take on one of the company's many budding projects such as its Glass eyewear or the self-driving car.
"If he really has the magic touch perhaps he can create something else within Google," said Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Partners, who added that it was better for Google to have a more "cohesive" mobile brand.
Still, it remains unclear how Pichai would seek to merge Chrome and Android, if at all. Microsoft Corp , for example, recently introduced its Windows 8 operating system that was designed for both touch-screen desktop devices and Windows smartphones like the Nokia Lumia, while its Surface tablet further blurred the distinctions between form factors.
In his blog post, Page said Pichai would "double down" on Android.
"Sundar has a talent for creating products that are technically excellent yet easy to use - and he loves a big bet," Page wrote. "So while Andy's a really hard act to follow, I know Sundar will do a tremendous job doubling down on Android as we work to push the ecosystem forward."
Android is now installed on roughly two-thirds of the world's smartphones, supplanting Apple Inc at the pinnacle of the fast-moving mobile arena.
Android tablets are also expected to overtake Apple's iPad in terms of shipments in 2013, IT research house IDC predicted on Tuesday.
But Android's explosive growth - and the companies it has boosted - have also concerned Google's leadership. Rubin himself has warned other Google executives that Samsung could use its heft to renegotiate its ad revenue-sharing deals with Google, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.
The re-shuffle reinforces Pichai, a senior vice president, as one of the leading voices within Google.
Trained as an engineer in India before moving to the United States, Pichai holds degrees from Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He joined Google in 2004.
In 2008, Pichai aggressively pushed Google's Chrome browser, when Microsoft Corp's Explorer lorded over the market. Chrome now commands a roughly 35 percent market share according to Web traffic analyzers StatCounter.
He is also credited with the development of some of the company's most successful cloud-based apps, such as Calendar and Gmail, and has also steered Google Drive.
"Today we're living in a new computing environment," Page wrote. "People are really excited about technology and spending a lot of money on devices."
Google shares closed down 0.3 percent at $825.31. (Reporting by Edwin Chan and Gerry Shih; Additional reporting by Alistair Barr; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Leslie Adler, Andrew Hay and Bernard Orr)