Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Twitter Courts Google’s Sundar Pichai for Head of Product

Sundar Pichai, the man in charge of Chrome and Chrome OS at Google, is being aggressively courted by Twitter to be its next head of product, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

However, added sources, Google is fighting hard to counter the Twitter offer, so Pichai could easily stay with his current employer. At Google, which he joined in April 2004, Pichai is a VP of Product Management.

If successful, the hiring of Pichai would be a major raid for Twitter, and mark its place next to Facebook as an up-and-comer in the race to entice away top Google executives.

More importantly, Twitter could use the product help.

The San Francisco microblogging company, which just raised a massive funding, has done relatively little product development recently, in large part because its focus has been absorbed by overwhelming growth and infrastructure problems.

Pichai certainly fits the bill as a head of product for Twitter, given his job at Google. The well-regarded tech exec heads the Silicon Valley search giant’s high-profile Chrome browser and Chrome OS efforts.

Pichai was front and center at an unveiling of Chrome OS plans in November, and touted the Chrome browser’s 40 million users only a year after its debut in 2009.

But not everyone is so sanguine. Paul Buchheit, founder of Gmail (and FriendFeed) predicted a very short life for Google’s still-in-beta Chrome OS, noting–on Twitter in December–that he thought the product would be axed or fused with Android in 2011.

As Mobilized’s Ina Fried wrote at the time:

Google originally hoped to have Chrome OS-based computers for sale this year, but has run into some delays. Last week, the company released a beta version of the software and distributed to testers an unbranded laptop running the operating system. However, it’s worth noting that in doing so, Google has hardly made the strongest hardware case for the operating system, using a relatively bulky netbook with a reliable, but hardly power-sipping Intel Atom processor.

The idea of merging the two operating systems has some merit. Doing so would pair a top-notch browser with an ecosystem that already has a lot of applications and developers.

For now, the operating systems are distinct, with Android running hundreds of thousands of applications and used largely on phones, along with a few tablets, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. However, Google VP Andy Rubin confirmed after his appearance at last week’s D: Dive Into Mobile that the company is working on a new version of Android, known as Honeycomb, that is geared exclusively to tablets. (The full video of Rubin’s onstage appearance was posted on our site earlier today.)

Acer and a couple of other hardware makers have said they plan to do Chrome OS netbooks next year once the software is ready.

If hired, Pichai would fill an open spot left by the departure of longtime Twitter VP of Product Jason Goldman, who stepped down at the beginning of December.

The attempt to bring on Pichai to lead product brings into question former CEO Evan Williams’s role at the company. When he stepped down as CEO, Williams said it was in order to focus on product strategy, and when Goldman gave up his position, many assumed Williams was the natural substitute.

While Pichai would be a strong choice for the job, he has not been an active user of the product.

Until recently, that is.

Pichai’s own Twitter account has a grand total of 118 tweets, with about a third of them posted in the last month.

Yesterday, in an interview with BoomTown’s Kara Swisher at D@CES, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said some product goals for Twitter included a better experience for passive users and a more “agnostic” experience across platforms.

Costolo also mentioned a new zero tolerance policy for infrastructure problems, and said that Twitter does not consider itself a “platform company,” but rather one that has APIs.

The Google-Twitter connection is strong, and not just on the we-want-to-buy-you front–Google has often cast its acquisitive eyes at Twitter and still does.

And many Twitter employees were formerly Googlers, although not all in the same era or area.

Costolo himself came to Twitter after being at Google, which had acquired his last start-up, FeedBurner.

Other former Googlers include many on Twitter’s product team, such as Othman Laraki and Elad Gil, who were product managers at Google Mobile Maps and Google Toolbar before joining Twitter through its acquisition of their geo start-up Mixer Labs.

In addition, last year, Twitter nabbed Google lawyer Alexander Macgillivray as its general counsel.

And, of course, Twitter co-founders Williams and Biz Stone had worked at Google after it bought Blogger. They created Twitter after they left the company.

It’s possible that Pichai leaving Google might have something to do with the company favoring the Android mobile operating system over Chrome OS, but seems more likely that the Twitter role would just be a compelling opportunity for him.

Twitter declined comment, and Google has not responded to an inquiry about Pichai.

Until this nail-biting talent raid has a resolution, here’s a video of Pichai talking at the Web 2.0 Summit in 2009: