Is Matias Duarte the man to make or break Android?

March 7, 2013 by  
Filed under Features & Editorials

Matias Duarte might not have the god-like image of Jony Ive, but he’s had almost as much impact on the mobile tech we use today…

Technology journalists are rarely a sentimental bunch, but the mere mention of WebOS is enough to make some teary eyed. Bandied around like an unloved puppy, the former Palm platform was this week sold on to LG which hopes to find it a place in smartphones, tablets and primarily TVs. HP, its former owner, is typically cast as the villain who snatched WebOS away from more suitable buyers during Palm’s demise and slowly ran one of tech’s most promising platforms into the ground through ridiculous decision making and neglect. Prior to the sale, HP’s last act was to throw WebOS to the open source community to rip it apart like wolves. Yes WebOS’s story is a sorry one, but the man behind it could yet have an even more dramatic tale to tell.


The Webslinger

Matias Duarte was just 35 and dressed in a shocking orange shirt when he demoed WebOS for the first time at CES 2009. Duarte was the lead developer and showed off features that not only caused shock and awe at the time, but which are still passed off by the likes of Apple, Google and BlackBerry as revolutionary today. Most recently the last of these went to great pains in its BB10 launch to highlight its ‘true’ multitasking, swipe gestures which originate from the bezel, card-style app switching and the ‘Hub’ which aggregates SMS, emails and social networking alerts into a single thread. In 2009 WebOS already had them all.


Meanwhile WebOS’ ‘unobtrusive’ banner-style notifications, integration of social networking data with contacts and ‘Think Ahead’ all-in-one phone, Internet and Wikipedia search were mimicked by both Android and iOS less than 12 months later. In all Duarte is named as inventor of 18 of WebOS’ primary patent applications and was given full control over its evolution. As such it was no surprise to see Duarte leave Palm less than a month after it was acquired by HP in 2010. His destination was an obvious one: Director of User Experience for Android.


Moving to a company with near-limitless resources and a functional rather than beautiful product range which desperately needed a makeover seemed like the ideal fit for Duarte, but his rise to the top of the software designer tree had long looked inevitable.

At just 23 the Chilean had been lead designer on Atari’s Phase Zero hovercraft simulator, at 24 he was vice president of design at game studio MagicArts and between 2000 and 2005 Duarte was director of design at Danger. Here he created the platform of the same name for T-Mobile’s hugely successful Hiptop and SideKick phones and won Wired’s 2002 Industrial Designer Rave Award beating competition from Apple’s Industrial Design Team which had been nominated for its work on the flat panel iMac. In 2007 Palm came calling.


The subsequent switch to Android delighted Google’s executives, they believed they had found their very own Jonathan Ive.

Do Androids Dream?

Certainly early signs are that Google has the right man. Arriving in May 2010 Duarte’s first challenge was developing Android 3.0 ‘Honeycomb’, the release which controversially fractured Android into phone and tablet segments. Duarte’s instructions were to design a more beautiful and intuitive tablet platform, re-stitch it with the phone OS carrying forward his design changes for Android 4.0 and pursue three key goals: larger screened devices, continued evolution of Android, and a better user interface.

Coincidentally May 2010 was a key month for Android. It was the month analysts reported Google’s OS has overtaken the iPhone’s market share in the US for the first time, though it still remained significantly behind leader BlackBerry. Skip forward to 2012 and Android has over 70 per cent of the global smartphone market, Apple has 20 per cent and Windows Phone and the new BlackBerry 10 platform are left desperately fighting each other to stay relevant miles behind in third place.

Over this time Apple’s troubled Siri and Maps launches have seen iOS stall, but a huge amount of credit for Android’s rise also goes to Duarte as he adds increasing amounts of the polish and smart design seen in WebOS into Android 4.x. A key moment came with Android 4.1 ‘Jelly Bean’ in September which saw the realisation of ‘Project Butter’. This ended the previously choppy navigation associated with Android and made the whole platform run at a silky smooth 60 frames per second. Google was suddenly pushing beauty as a key selling point.

After Project Butter was released Duarte commented “we still have a lot of work to do. Personally I feel like I’ve gotten only about a third of the way to where I want to be with regards to consistency, responsiveness and polish.” The same month Duarte was recognised by Co.Design as ‘One of 50 Designers Shaping the Future’.

Blade Runner

There was a further upside to Duarte’s design lead revolution: suddenly Google’s own-brand Nexus products were in massive demand. This was a radical turnaround. In July 2010, just months after Duarte’s arrival then Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced sales of its debut Nexus One would stop and that Google had no interest in making more self-branded hardware. “The idea a year and a half ago was to do the Nexus One to try to move the phone platform hardware business forward,” he told the Telegraph. “It clearly did. It was so successful, we didn’t have to do a second one. We would view that as positive but people criticised us heavily for that. I called up the board and said: ‘Ok, it worked. Congratulations – we’re stopping’.”


But Google wasn’t stopping. By the end of the year a Nexus S was launched, followed by a Galaxy Nexus in November 2011 – though while garnering good reviews, sales of both remained niche. Exactly one year later the Nexus 4 was unveiled and launched with a breakthrough price point and Android 4.2, the latest, smoothest and most polished version of Android to date. Suddenly sales went through the roof and Google was lambasted for being unable to keep up with demand as stock ran out for weeks at a time.

Much like the Apple business model, slick hardware and even slicker software had now combined and ‘Google phones’ were being propelled into the big leagues. Duarte and his designer team appeared to have led Android into a new era… but it now looks only to be the calm before the storm. This is a sample, to read about the storm Duarte is leading Android into and the crucial choice Google must now take click here for the full feature on ITProPortal

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