Carnegie Mellon robotics professor steps in to head Google's growing robotics bid

Andrew E. "Andy" Rubin is out at Google Inc. (GOOG), (now likely departing) Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Associate Professor James J. Kuffner, Jr. is in.  Professor Kuffner will now lead Google's burgeoning robotics effort, which has been on a startup acquisition and hiring binge in the past year.

Mr. Rubin, who holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Utica College in New York, worked at several companies including Apple, Inc. (AAPL) and MSN TV (pre-Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) acquisition), before becoming a power player via his guiding role at mobile startup Danger Inc.  Danger made the "Sidekick", a best-selling smartphone precursor.

In 2003 he left the CEO position to cofound Android Inc. -- one of the first major efforts to create a touch-friendly mobile user interface based on the Linux kernel.  (Microsoft would eventually go on to acquire Mr. Rubin's former firm Danger Inc.)  In 2005 Google acquired Android, bringing Mr. Rubin onboard as a senior vice president (SVP).  After two years of prepping, Android was officially announced in 2007.  A year later the first Android smartphone products hit the market.

Andy Rubin
Andy Rubin founded Android.  In 2005 Android was acquired by Google; Rubin subsequently led the mobile effort until 2013, helping it to become the world's most used smartphone and tablet platform. [Image Source: iDownloadBlog]

Android started off slow, sales-wise, but its strong contingent of third-party OEM backers quickly led to it becoming the fastest growing player in the mobile markets.  By 2010 Android was the top selling smartphone platform in the U.S.  In early 2011 it overtook Nokia Oyj. (HEL:NOK1V) as the world's top smartphone platform.  And early this year it overtook Apple to become the world's best-selling tablet platform.

Google has Mr. Rubin to thank for much of Android's wild success.  After nearly a decade of patient work he had guided Android to become the world's biggest open source project.

Rumors of a possible exit began in 2012, with reports that he might be leaving for stealth startup CloudCar.  That rumor didn't pan out, but Mr. Rubin's days at Android did indeed prove numbered.  In Mar. 2013 he made the decision to step away as Google's SVP of Mobile and Digital Content and was reassigned to lead Google's new robotics team.

He appeared to be setting into his new role -- an admittedly exciting new challenge.  Google had acquired numerous startups including Boston Dynamics and UK drone maker Titan Aerospace.  In Feb. 2014 it announced a partnership with Foxconn Technology Comp. Ltd. (TPE:2354), which led to analyst speculation that it was preparing a legion of smarter, safer next-generation manufacturing robots.

Rumors have also suggested that Google is looking to apply its robotics expertise to the service industry, perhaps offering humanoid robots to fill roles such as customer assistance, cashier duties, food service, and other low-wage positions.  And Google's AI is, obviously, critical to its self-driving cars bid.

But on Thursday Alistair Barr of The Wall Street Journal became the first to break the surprising news of the tech visionary's departure.  The WSJ reveals that he will now devote his effort to creating an incubator for Silicon Valley startups, looking to stoke the same sort of innovative success that he had personally realized at Android Inc. and Danger Inc.

Andy Rubin
After stepping down as Android chief, Rubin assumed a new role at Google, pursuing his lifelong robotics dream.  [Image Source: The New York Times]

Google CEO Larry Page wished Mr. Rubin the best in this new effort, stating:

I want to wish Andy all the best with what’s next.  With Android he created something truly remarkable— with a billion-plus happy users. Thank you.

The WSJ states that the departure was relatively surprising, given that Mr. Rubin had a lifelong obsession with robotics and had initially spoke of his new role at Google as a dream job of sorts.  It's unclear what changed that prompted him to change his mind.

Interactive Data Corp. (IDC) analyst Scott Strawn told The WSJ:

It’s surprising and sounds pretty unplanned.  If it was voluntary on Mr. Rubin’s part, you would think he would see part of the robotics project through to completion to have something to show publicly before leaving.

While the departure is a setback for Google's robotics project, it's far from game over for Google's robotics ambitions.  CMU is perhaps the top research university in the robotics field, and Professor Kuffner -- an expert in the field of robotic motion -- was one of CMU's brightest rising stars.

Now he hopes to rise even higher at Google.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, via The Verge, James Kuffner on Google+

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