What Is Android? Google's Mobile OS Explained
Android is the BIGGEST mobile OS on the planet, dwarfing Apple's iOS platform. But how did this happen? Lets find out
A lot people know all about Android, iOS and Windows Phone – and BlackBerry 10, too. But there are some, outside the fast-paced world of technology, unsure about what any of these words actually mean. For instance, I recently passed an iPhone on to my mum and the first thing she asked, bless her, was whether it was an Android phone. “No,” I told her, “it’s iOS-powered because Apple makes it. Android is Google’s platform.”
She nodded, but I could tell she was still a bit confused. So I figured, sod it, I’m going to do a piece on this, something that’ll explain what Android is, how it works, and why it’s different from, say, iOS, in a way anybody unsure about technology –– your mum, dad, cousin or grandparent –– can easily understand. So here goes…
What IS Android?
Rumours about Google entering the smartphone space reached boiling point following the launch of Apple’s original iPhone in 2007. Many expected Google to follow Apple’s lead and release a smartphone powered by proprietary software. This, of course, didn’t happen and Google instead chose to unveil a Linux-based, open-source operating system, which it debuted in 2007 alongside the Open Handset Alliance – a collection of 86 hardware, software, and telecommunication companies devoted to advancing open standards for mobile devices.
Apple, Microsoft, RIM, and Nokia all had their respective ‘smartphone’ platforms well underway by the time Google released the first version of Android back in 2007. In this respect Android was very much an underdog in the developing smartphone space – it had no traction, no brand, and very few hardware partners.
At this juncture in time Symbian dominated the mobile space almost entirely, with Apple’s iOS playing the part of ‘new kid on the block.’ Then, iOS was modern and forward thinking – the physical manifestation of where the market was going.
Between 2007 and 2008 it was clear that the mobile space was at the cusp of something big. But no one could have imagined that Android would, in the space of several short years, eclipse everybody else in the space, including Apple and the then-dominant Symbian platform.
Android Inc. circa 2003
Andy Rubin, along with Rich Miner, Nick Sears, and Chris White, founded Android Inc. in 2003 with the intention of building a smarter mobile device which was ‘more aware of its owner’s location and preferences.’
Android Inc. was highly secretive though. Not much was known about the company, other than who founded it and that it nearly ran of cash at one point. Google officially acquired the company in 2005, absorbing everything – including Rubin, Sears, and White.
Once re-located at Google, Rubin was tasked with creating a mobile phone operating system. It was at this point that rumours began circulating that Google was entering the mobile space, despite no one really knowing how the search-giant planned on attacking the market.
“Google has come out of the closet at the CeBIT trade fair admitting that it is working on a mobile phone of its own,’ commented Nomura phone analyst Richard Windsor back in 2006. He added: ‘This is not going to be a high-end device but a mass market device aimed at bringing Google to users who don't have a PC.”
The Open Handset Alliance
Google unveiled Android on November 5, 2007. It was the first product of the Open Handset Alliance and was the start of Google’s movement towards the mobile sector.
Here’s how Google described the first iteration of Android:
“Android is the first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices. It includes an operating system, user-interface and applications –– all of the software will run a mobile phone, but without the proprietary obstacles that have hindered mobile innovation,” said Andy Rubin on the Google Blog.
The end goal of Android was described as follows: “through deep partnerships with carriers, device manufacturers, developers, and others, we hope to enable an open ecosystem for the mobile world by creating a standard, open mobile software platform.”
Progress was initially slow, however, and it took almost another year before the world’s first Android-powered handset, the HTC Dream, was released on October 22, 2008.
And so begins the story of Android…
What made Android so attractive to manufacturers, referred to as Google’s hardware partners, was that Android was effectively free to use. It was open-source, which meant no hefty licensing fees and no huge R&D bills – Google provided the software, manufacturers took care of the hardware. Simple.
HTC, Samsung, and Motorola were Google’s initial core hardware partners, with all three brands launching Android-powered devices in 2009. Perhaps the most well known device in the UK, however, was the HTC Hero, which launched in October of 2009.
The HTC Hero featured the following features – try not to laugh:
- Touch screen, trackball and keyboard
- Applications from the Android Market
- Google Maps, YouTube, and Google Talk
- Music downloads from Amazon.com
- Built-in Wi-Fi, 3G, and EDGE
Below are the first 10 Android-powered handsets:
- T-Mobile G1 (HTC Dream)
- T-Mobile MyTouch 3G
- HTC Hero
- Samsung Moment
- Motorola Cliq
- Motorola Droid
- HTC Droid Eris
- Samsung Behold II
- Nexus One
- HTC Desire
At this stage in the game, circa 2009/early 2010, Samsung was something of a non-entity in the mobile space and Android had very little share of the market –– but it didn’t take Google long to find its feet.
Android officially kicked off with version 1.5 (AKA Cupcake), which powered many of the above handsets, including the HTC Hero, and was the first true iteration of Android, featuring a suite of Google services.
Android 1.6 (Donut) and Android 2.0 (Éclair) appeared in the latter part of Q4 2009, bringing much-needed updates to Google’s mobile platform and its growing fleet of handsets.
In May 2010 Google pushed out Android 2.2 (Froyo) bringing multitasking to the platform for the first time. This was a big deal and considered something of a game changer because, at the time, iOS still lacked this type of functionality.
The idea behind Android, at least according to Google’s official spiel, was to introduce an open-source solution to a market completely dominated by closed-source systems like iOS, Symbian, and BlackBerry OS. It also gave the search giant another medium for generating advertising revenues.
Android: The Quickening
The uptake of Android by OEMs happened quickly with the likes of HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, LG, Dell, ZTE, and Motorola pumping out tons of handsets at varying price-points between 2009 and 2011, rapidly growing Google’s share of the mobile space.
Devices like the HTC Desire, Motorola DROID, and Samsung Galaxy S popularised Android with consumers en masse and sold in the tens of millions, effectively ruining BlackBerry and Nokia’s respective smartphone businesses.
Detailing every handset that contributed towards Google’s rise to global domination is impossible. HTC was the first big player within Android thanks to the success of its HTC Hero and HTC Desire handsets, which lead to Google tasking the Taiwanese firm with building its first pure Google handset, the Nexus One [we’re now on the sixth-generation model, the Motorola-built Nexus 6].
The Nexus One was something of a flop but by this point there was another force at play within the Android Kingdom: Samsung. Between late 2010 and 2011 Samsung’s brand and market presence grew almost as quickly as Android. It started with the Galaxy S and reached new heights in early 2012 when Samsung surpassed Nokia as the world’s biggest handset manufacturer.
But it was the rate of adoption and the availability of Android that made the platform so popular. It was the antithesis of iOS, BlackBerry and Symbian. It gave hardware companies a path into mobile, previously fraught with licensing fees and huge R&D bills. Google wanted to change the entire mobile business and, in the space a few short years, it achieved this goal with gusto, making household names out of Samsung and HTC in the process.
I know, I know –– that’s a lot of information to take in. But, as a nice little reward for getting this far, here’s a beautifully informative infographic, created by Mobile Madhouse, which details, visually, everything we’ve just discussed. Enjoy!
Present Day: Android’s Domination In 2014
Wherever you go, people have smartphones –– it doesn’t matter how old they, what gender they are, or their cultural background. Smartphones, like TVs, are one thing we all have in common, no matter where you go in the world. And, if you’re observant, you’ll notice that a great many of the handsets you see while out and about on your travels are powered by Google’s Android OS.
Sure, there’s plenty of iPhones, BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices knocking around. But the most –– read: nearly all –– are Android. According to the latest stats from Strategy Analytics, Android’s share of the worldwide mobile space topped out at 85% during the second quarter of 2014. In contrast, Apple’s mega-popular iPhone has just 12%.
Yep, Android really is THAT big.