Dave Burke a heavyweight in the changing software industry

The vice-president of engineering for Android has still a hint of a Dublin accent in his Silicon Valley twang

 

“This is not normal. Whatever you did...it’s incredible. I didn’t even know we had umbrellas here.”

Dave Burke, vice-president of engineering for Android, is looking at a rainy Google campus in Silicon Valley. It may be March, but it’s clear that rain is an unusual occurrence. Google umbrellas are being loaned to visitors and staff moving through the campus, and the Mountain View campus is looking decidedly soggy.

Naturally it’s the visit of the Irish that is getting the blame, although Burke is originally from Dublin himself.

The UCD electronic engineering graduate relocated to Silicon Valley more than four years ago to work on Android after a stint in London working on Google’s mobile project. There’s still more than a hint of the Dublin accent beneath the Silicon Valley twang.

Burke’s work in the mobile industry can be traced back to the release of the Nokia 7110.

“I was one of those geeky kids who was always making robots and stuff and gadgets,” he says.

“I remember when I was still a Phd student and the first Nokia 7110 came out. It was the first phone with WAP, with real internet – well, dial-up – and I remember being totally intrigued by this idea, and getting really excited by it.

“I went out, borrowed money and bought one. I was intrigued by the idea if you have a phone that connected to the internet, and could connect to a data centre with computers and servers, suddenly you have effectively a super-computer in your pocket.”

Burke created a web app for phones called Streetwise, licensing ordnance survey data in Dublin, writing software to create maps and to do directions, and creating an email app on top of it.

It got some attention, and on the back of the publicity he set up voice analysis and recognition firm Voxpilot.

“I was CTO of that company and I kind of felt after a while I was a big fish in a small pond. I applied to a couple of different companies. Google was one of them,” he says.

“I remember in the interview they asked ‘why do you want to work here’, and I was like ‘I’m a big fish in a small pond. I want to be a medium fish in a huge pond’.”

Although he initially planned to go straight to Silicon Valley, the company was setting up a mobile group in London, so he started there.

That was in the days before the iPhone launched and Android became the focus of Google’s mobile strategy.

“Increasingly I was thinking ‘hey, that seems kind of cool. It seems completely ridiculous that you could create an operating system and that would become huge, but I like your ambition’,” says Burke.

Once a small project Google bought back in 2005, one billion Android phones shipped in 2014, so you could declare that ambition was well placed. It has gone up against Apple and iOS, and emerged as the market leader.

One of the biggest considerations was the flexibility of Android.

“I personally had written code for all platforms by the time we were working on Android, so I’d experienced all the rabbit holes you could get stuck down because the platforms weren’t designed with app developers in mind,” says Burke.

There are now more than 2 million apps on Google’s Play store, with countless others outside that walled garden.

The days when people predicted Android would lose out to Apple seem a long way off, at least for the mobile market.

“You could see how the industry needed a counterbalance in a way,” says Burke. “You don’t want one company, one vertical, you want to have some kind of balance. It became obvious to me then that it was going to be successful.”

In recent years Android has expanded beyond the phone and tablet to wearables, TV products, even cars.

That brings challenges of its own , with different devices and varying requirements somewhat of a challenge for all involved

And it’s not just about the expansion in devices.

The notion of fragmentation of the Android platform is something that has been much discussed and flagged as a problem for the system.

There are so many different versions of the software, from different phones and tablets with older Android versions to the custom software that has been developed and installed by different manufacturers on their devices, that it may dilute the Android experience.

But Burke says real fragmentation was what came before Android, when there was everything from Symbian and Palm OS to Windows Mobile and WebOS. “There was no app ecosystem,” he says.

Google has also altered how it approaches updates. Security updates are pushed out monthly to Nexus devices – “we decided let’s just show everybody how you do this, once a month, boom, it should update” – and the version updates, the dessert-themed ones, are now developed with more of a partnership focus, sharing code.

“The reality is all software has bugs. There’s just no getting around it. Android has lots of security layers, but you’ll always have bugs here and there.

“I think the industry is going through a transition phase now. I think we’re showing the way, we’re working a lot with partners, they’re all starting to get it, they’re starting to pivot.”

Burke, incidentally, isn’t wearing an Android Wear watch. He’s not wearing a smartwatch at all, but a mechanical analogue watch, the type that you wind, that he describes as “old school” and notes the workmanship and the precision.

“I have an obsession with clocks from when I was a kid, so I used to go to bed when I was four with clocks. It was a little weird. I like mechanical things.”

However, he has a number of Android Wear watches that he likes to hack. Among the devices that get a mention are the Tag Heuer and the Casio Android Wear device. The latter is too big for him, he says, but it is impressive.

“I like how they have their own personality but still have the android wear system on it.”

He singles out the second generation Moto 360 for specific praise.

“That team is doing really awesome work,” he says. “The new software – we can’t talk about it – there’s an example of where I think Apple has to step it up.

“There’s no fun having competition if they’re not going to step it up.”

It’s still early days for smartwatches, though the new software – still no details – will help.

So what’s next? Nougat? Neopolitan?

The next name hasn’t been announced yet, with the new software going by Android N. Online speculation has arrived at the food-themed but undessert-like Nacho, fuelled by a video posted online that contains a note with the line “we’d like to thank... all of our fans out there, our parents, Janice from craft services, for the lollipops, marshmallows and Na-”.

We can expect something to emerge soon. The developer software is already available, and Google’s I/O developer conference is set to take place on May 18th.

At I/O 2015 prior to the announcement of Android Marshmallow, Burke teased the audience with a picture of a milkshake on his Android Wear watch.

Predictably, the internet exploded, with speculation that this was the name of the next version of Google’s dessert-themed software, although it turned out not to be the case. It was a last-minute idea.

“I had it rotating and thought people might not get the right screenshot, so I fixed it on milkshake and set it back to rotating when I got off stage,” he says.

“That was fun. I should do something fun this year.”

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