Sundar Pichai is a senior vice president at Google in charge of Android, Chrome, and Google Apps. As such he has a lot of influence over some of Google’s most important consumer products. He is also considered to be the righthand man of Google’s chief executive, Larry Page. In a recent NY Times interview Sundar was grilled about the intrusiveness of smartphones, the dangers of anti-social phone use, and the possible solutions.
When asked if smartphones will eventually become socially unacceptable because of overuse, Sundar noted that people get a lot from their Android smartphones however they are probably more “interruptive” than they need to be, however ultimately it is the user who is in control, they use their phones how much they want to.
That was the first question in the interview and throughout the rest of the questioning the idea of individual choice was repeated again and again. When asked about checking emails during dinner, Sundar said that if parent allow their children to do that then it is a parent choice. If the parent themselves are doing it then that isn’t a technology question, as their are people who watch TV during dinner and nobody is blaming the TV manufacturers for that!
It’s their choice, and I want to be careful not to be prescriptive about what is OK to do and what is not OK to do.
At this point the interviewer changed tack and pointed out that people are making apps that turn your phone off for a while indicating that consumers see the need for way to reduce the temptation to constantly use a smartphone. Sundar pointed out that this isn’t a unique problem for smartphones, consumers want the same thing for email or for social media. “I also don’t know how much of these are like something that is just happening at the margin versus what’s happening at the core,” he added.
He then went on to repeat that how consumer’s user their phones is up to them. “To me, we need to design products which are genuinely centered around users. And then there is a line by which how users choose to live their lives. It’s their choice, and I want to be careful not to be prescriptive about what is OK to do and what is not OK to do.”
One area where Sundar is prepared for Google to be more prescriptive is with Android Auto. When you are driving it is important that a user only get the information that is critical, mainly because pulling out your phone while driving is dangerous.
He points out that he makes everyone on the team put all their phones in a basket so that they can all have a good dinner together.
“So if you look at how we are thinking through something like Android Auto, we are trying to thoughtfully figure out how you get what you want at the right time,” said Pichai. “Can you just speak and get your answer so that you don’t have to open up a phone? These are all experiences we think through.”
The conversation then shifts a little to personal policies with regards to smartphone use. Sundar revealed that on the evening before a Google I/O keynote speech he goes out for a meal with his team. He points out that he makes “everyone on the team put all their phones in a basket” so that they can all have a good dinner together.
Often when people compare iOS and Android, the mantra seems to be that Apple care about the end experience, it just needs to work. However to think that only Apple worrys about that is a little naive. As Pichai said, “the point is not to present the technology to the user. The point is to build a user experience.”
What do you think, are smartphones becoming too intrusive? Are they tearing away at the social fabric of life? Let me know in the comments below.