Dubliner David Burke: Meet Google’s Mr Android

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The Big Read, sponsored by Vodafone: When the buck stops with you for more than 80 per cent of the world’s smartphones, it’s easy to feel stressed. That’s the huge responsibility facing one Dubliner, but he has an army to back him up.

David Burke is essentially Mr Android. As Google’s vice-president for Android, Burke leads a team of 800 engineers to build the software that most of the phones on the planet rely on.

Despite having been in the US only four-and-a-half years, Burke has already developed a thick West Coast twang. Locked in a perpetual arms race with Apple’s iOS platform, he told me that it was the competition that drove him to make Android better.

“Not everybody appreciates the difference between the platforms. Android is the largest federated software platform in history. Nothing has ever been built on this scale. When Apple builds an operating system, it’s for one device. If you compare attributes, you have to compare apples with apples, so to speak,” said Burke.

“In terms of the actual platform, for me it’s amazing to have the competition with Apple. The two sides are urging each other on. There are a lot of features in the iPhone that had origins in Android. The result of this back and forth competition is that consumers win.

“If Android is constantly innovating and it enables it to keep the ecosystem competing with Apple, the users are happy.”

Burke joined Google in 2008, and was initially given a broader brief with his London-based team.

“I have been on mobile since the beginning, back when the search on mobile was minuscule. Now over half of Google searches are on mobile. Android got momentum a little later, and the first device was launched in 2008,” he said.

“Originally we were building for all phones on all platforms, Android was just another one. We started to realise that Android had more potential than the fragmented platforms that were a pain to work for.”

Since taking the helm at Android four years ago, Burke has put the platform’s security reputation at the forefront. The Google-backed platform had a dreadful image for being an easy target.

“We weren’t good at marketing what we had been doing. What we have done over time is add more security with each update. The Play Store has also developed significantly. We run all of the applications that are uploaded virtually, so we can instantly detect anything malicious and protect consumers,” said Burke.

“As a result, if you look at the actual exploits of Android, they are very low. As it is open-source, people can analyse it. We pay people bounties to try to hack us. As soon as we have known issues, we add them to our monthly bulletin that we send to the industry. We are investing in showing the world what we are doing.”

While Android has become the primary platform for smartphones, Google’s own share of the hardware side of the market, with its Nexus devices, remains small.

“The past year was interesting for Nexus: we wanted to focus on the more premium end of the market. We are trying to build really amazing phones. The goal is to build better and better devices,” said Burke.

“Android is about choice. It’s important to have different devices. We obviously want Nexus to be one of the devices people pick, but all Android devices are as good as Nexus devices in our view.

“The platform is where the core value is, and we have to build nice devices to make it work, because building the platform in the abstract is difficult.”

For Burke, the platform itself is where Google can derive the most value. “We found there were so many manufacturers with so many different operating systems that it was difficult to bring Google’s services to mobile. When Android started, it was seen as just another operating system,” he said.

“It wasn’t about another system, it was about creating an open-source system. We did the work to create a better level playing field for everyone. Google plays by the same rules as Facebook on Android. It’s an eco-system that allows companies like Google to get their services out there.

“It’s still early days. There is so much more we can do. We are moving into wearables. It is about contextual computing. How do computers assist you, but also get out of the way of what you are doing?

“Also, if you look at how mobile is changing the world, there are knock-on effects on the supply chain. As that builds, new skills are being developed which enable new devices to be developed that will work with the internet of things [IoT]. That is where Brillo, the stripped-down version of Android, has come from to work with the IoT.”

Earlier this month, Burke received a UCD Alumni Award, in recognition of his work in bringing Android out of the forest of platforms to make it the global force it is today.

Big companies acquire startups, and then you get the recycling effect where people go out and start another business. We’re starting to see that in Dublin now.

“I was always fascinated by mobile devices. I remember in 1999, I was still a poor student using floppy disks, and the Nokia 7110 had just been launched. It was a Wap-based phone. It would dial up a modem and you got a tiny, stripped-down version of the internet,” said Burke.

“I was excited by this idea that if you had a phone that you could connect to the internet, you would have access to servers, and with that you would have supercomputing power in your pocket. I had no money, so I asked my girlfriend at the time for a loan so I could try an idea. She’s now my wife, so it worked out.”

Burke created map, email and games functions for Wap devices, eventually leading to a small company run out of his bedroom. That firm, Streetwise, led to Burke setting up another company called Voxpilot, which was eventually sold. He said the opportunities for startups in Dublin now were radically different to what he encountered in the mid-2000s.

“At the time, there weren’t many startups in Dublin, there weren’t many mentors around. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned from them.

“The scene in Dublin is much more vibrant now, and the value you get from running a startup is immense,” said Burke.

“The reason why Silicon Valley is so successful is the critical mass. Smart nerds like working with other smart nerds. Once you get that critical mass, you see start-ups attract other start-ups. Big companies acquire startups, and then you get the recycling effect where people go out and start another business. We’re starting to see that in Dublin now.

“Google is an interesting company in that respect. It was founded as an engineering focused company, but it was essentially a company for entrepreneurs. If you liked starting and creating something, it was a good place to go. Ireland and Google have a great symbiotic relationship: they have done a lot for each other.”

Originally published in The Sunday Business Post.

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