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The U.S. Mobile Market Will Start to Look Like China, Says Android Founder Andy Rubin (Video)

Ex-Android boss says the disintegration of carrier contracts is the "biggest change in the last 10 years in mobile."

Asa Mathat

So much has changed in the mobile world since Google acquired Andy Rubin’s tiny startup Android a decade ago. The largest transformation? For Rubin, it has been the unseating of the carriers as the sole distributors of phones.

“That’s the biggest change in the last 10 years in mobile,” he said during the Code/Mobile conference at The Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif. “It’s huge.”

Rubin spent the first half of his conversation with Re/code Editor-at-Large Walt Mossberg talking up (a few) details about his newest venture, the hardware incubator Playground Global, and some of the platforms beyond smartphones. But he did share some thoughts on the industry where he cut his teeth.

The key sea change in mobile, he said, is the disintegration of the traditional two-year contracts in phone purchases from the wireless networks. The carriers have spurred this shift from their own heated competition. And Apple has shoved them along — launching an upgrade plan this fall that lets consumers buy iPhones directly, circumventing the carriers. Apple has worked on this “for years,” Rubin noted.

This trend is great for innovation and consumers, argued Rubin, who left his role leading Android in 2013. In the old model, the carriers could handpick the devices that made it to consumers. “The carriers were hit-makers. They always have been hit-makers,” he said.

No longer. Rubin said the shift will make the mobile market here resemble the one in China, where newcomers like Xiaomi — where fellow ex-Android compatriot, Hugo Barra, works — have seen considerable success selling directly to consumers. “It makes the U.S. look a lot more like China,” Rubin said. “We’re at the beginning.”

Of course, a more China-like world may be troubling to Rubin’s former company, Google. The search giant has worked hard to curb what it faces in China, where Android is so fragmented as to be unrecognizable. Rubin, however, defended this by-product of the software he created. He claimed this fragmentation in Android is not necessarily a bad thing.

“That has a negative connotation,” he said about the term. “I prefer ‘consumer choice.’”

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