Android: A Potted History

Android is the world’s most popular mobile platform, accounting for over half of global smartphone sales. Since its launch in 2008, the Google created operating system has come to dominate the mobile world and has steered it in directions competitors have followed, aping Google’s gradual evolutions and major innovations in their own mobile operating systems.

The army of little green robots has marched on and on, elevating Google to a position alongside Apple as one of the major players in terms of operating system uptake. According to US research firm IDC, the two companies account for 85% of smartphone purchases worldwide, with Android accounting for 68% alone.

Just a few weeks ago, senior Google employees such as Andy Rubin and Hugo Barra took to their Twitter accounts to boast that their firm’s mobile platform had passed the 500 million sales mark and Eric Schmidt, CEO of the search giant, has said that there are now 1.3 million Android devices being activated each day.

Many of the world’s leading mobile devices run Android and the platform is widely supported by many of the major smartphone manufacturers. Two of Samsung’s most prominent handset releases of 2012, the Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II, are Android devices, with the latter launched with the very latest version of the platform, Android Jelly Bean. Samsung also recently claimed that over 20 million Galaxy S III devices have been sold since its launch in May.

However, Android’s strength also lies in its support for budget phones, with there being countless cut-price devices which use Android as their OS. Samsung’s Galaxy Ace has been a been a popular choice as an entry-level smartphone and LG’s L3 has seen significant sales since its launch earlier this year, proving that Google’s mobile OS is well-suited to the bottom end of the market as well as the top.

Where did it begin?

Android was founded by a group of veteran mobile developers in 2003 with Andy Rubin at the head of the project. Initially operating amidst a veil of secrecy, the company ran out of money and had to be bailed out by a friend of Rubin’s who invested $10,000 into the start-up but refused a stake in the company. The team based their developments on the Linux open-source software, with its adaptable and customisable nature being something that would eventually become an intrinsic part of the Android platform’s make-up.

In 2005, Google stepped in and bought Android, making the new firm a wholly-owned subsidiary of the search giant. This prompted speculation amongst tech journalists that Google had its eye on moving into the mobile world and could be looking to produce an own-brand device.

These rumours didn’t prove to be entirely true, with Google seemingly uninterested in producing a phone that bore its colourful trademark logo, but work on the first Android devices began gathering pace nonetheless.

An early handset which failed to eventually see the light of day was the HTC Sooner, a device sporting a physical keypad and which looked like a more angular version of a BlackBerry, only sans touchscreen. While not actually a full retail model, the Sooner is a good example of the various possibilities that Android’s developers must have considered during the creation of the platform and the different aspects of mobile technology which may have been influencing them at the time.

Meanwhile, Android’s creators continued to work on the platform as Google staff, with Rubin himself becoming (and continuing to serve as) the firm’s senior vice president of mobile and digital content.

It was September 2008 before Android made its public debut, in the form of the T-Mobile G1, a bulky device with a slide-out physical keypad rather than an onscreen version. Google’s marketing machine clearly hadn’t moved into full swing by this point as many reviewers were confused by the new operating system and wondered whether it was a one off or the start of something bigger.

Nevertheless, the G1 went on to sell over a million units and proved to be an interesting introduction to the new platform. While having moved away from the BlackBerry influenced form of the HTC Sooner, the G1 was still very different in appearance to the full-touchscreen design that has since become standard for many Android handsets.

How has it changed?

Many, many iterations of Android have been introduced since its debut, with the various versions eventually taking on a naming system based on an alphabetical progression of various types of confectionary. While there were a couple of minor updates in the few months following the launch of the G1, the first significant upgrade was Android 1.5, known as Cupcake.

Cupcake brought in the now familiar onscreen keypad, enabling the platform’s move to full touchscreen handsets that didn’t require physical keys. Also introduced at this early stage was compatibility with YouTube, with Android users being able to upload clips directly to the video-sharing site. This move was quite advanced for the time but perhaps not surprising since Google bought YouTube back in 2006.

Further upgrades emerged over time, with Donut and Éclair introducing video recording, support for Microsoft Exchange, Bluetooth connectivity and an HTML5-enabled browser.

Following the release of Éclair, Google once again teamed-up with HTC, this time on a new project. Possibly concerned about the significant changes that manufacturers were making to the basic version of its software, the search giant looked to the Taiwanese firm to produce a device which would work on an unfettered stock Android platform with no alterations to its functions or user interface.

What emerged was the HTC Nexus One, a slim device with a navigational trackball and 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. This release marked the beginning of the Nexus project which would later see Samsung also producing stock Android devices and prove to be a testing ground for Google’s software. Since HTC’s device, Nexus handsets are the first to receive upgrades to new versions of the operating system.

In mid-2010 Froyo was introduced, followed later by Gingerbread. Android now had Flash 10.1, a new onscreen keyboard, NFC support and faster overall performance. To date, Gingerbread remains the most widely used version of Google’s OS, with over half of Android devices currently running this version.

Following the release of Honeycomb, a version of Android specifically configured for tablet devices, Ice Cream Sandwich was introduced. Many features first tested on Honeycomb were brought over the smartphone side of Android with ICS, including virtual control keys and adaptations to the onscreen app tray. Ice Cream sandwich itself brought about new calendar and mail apps and gave users the ability to store apps in onscreen folders.

What is the latest version?

This brings us right up to the present day, with Android’s latest version, Jelly Bean, unveiled in July 2012. Jelly Bean introduced some significant and impressive features to the Android world, including the Google Now digital assistant and an improved camera app.

Notifications also had an overhaul, and are able to expand outside of the usual dropdown bar and provide extra information. Resizable widgets have also made their way to Android homescreens.

Another significant feature introduced with Jelly Bean is Project Butter, a series of adaptations to the way Android’s user interface works in order to speeds it up and make performance smoother. Improved display refresh signals and system frame-rates increase the power supplied to the CPU every time the display is touched, vastly increasing the pace at which the UI can operate. Project Butter has brought about one of the fastest and smoothest mobile experiences ever seen.

What does it offer that other platforms can’t?

From the beginning, Android has been based on the open-source Linux software, meaning that the idea that it can be changed and adapted by a variety of people is something that exists at its very core. This is certainly true, with one of the most important aspects of the platform’s ethos being that manufacturers can modify the software to suit their own devices, often ‘reskinning’ the user interface to suit a particular identity and making adaptations to different aspects of the software’s operation.

HTC’s distinctive Sense UI is a perfect example of how Android’s appearance can be altered, with the Taiwanese firm having created a distinctive and appealing user interface that has evolved through several of its own iterations as the software on which it is based has also done. HTC’s alterations to the Android camera app, such as the innovative dual-capture buttons which allow photos to be taken while video footage is being captured, are also a good example of what manufacturers can do to the Android basics. Along with altering the appearance of the UI, the very way in which the software works can be adapted too.

The platform’s openness is something that has also been transferred to the way in which third-party apps are developed and introduced. For a long time Google took a very hands-off approach to the apps that were submitted to Google Play (in stark contrast to Apple’s strict approval process for iOS software). This made Android a great playground for creativity but brought about some very ad-heavy apps and the advent of malware for phones.

Google has recently tightened its approval process, introducing rules about the content that apps can offer and the level of advertising that they can carry. However, there are still third-party app stores that can host malicious apps, with the open nature of the platform giving Google no control over these at all.

Fragmentation

There is one area where Android has run into difficulties that some other platforms, notably iOS, do not suffer from. The fragmentation of Android devices, meaning the number of different devices on which it appears, has caused real problems in rolling-out updates to the software.

When a new iteration is launched it has to be adapted by manufacturers to suit their own user interfaces and then further approved by mobile networks, with the whole process turning out to be long and laborious, often resulting in some handsets never seeing an upgrade from the software with which they were launched.

As mentioned earlier, Gingerbread remains the most commonly used version of Android despite having been introduced as far back as December 2010 and being superseded twice. While Jelly Bean was announced several months ago it is only just coming to leading handsets such as the Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X. Conversely, the latest version of Apple’s mobile platform was reported to be running on 60% of iOS devices just two weeks after its release.

Where will it go in the future?

Few things can be certain about Android’s future other than that it will remain an enormously successful platform for some time to come. With the incredibly strong position it already has, coupled with the backing of Google it is likely to continue to be an innovative and prominent name in the mobile world for the foreseeable future.

The next iteration of the platform, rumoured to be called Key Lime Pie, has certainly not been announced yet and its release is still expected to be far enough away that speculation about what it will bring has yet to begin in earnest.

Looking further ahead, it is possible that the Nexus project will evolve to the point where Google develops its own handset, adopting an in-house business model similar to the way in which Apple works with iOS and its related devices. Google recently bought the mobile arm of Motorola and is said to be working closely on the manufacturer’s upcoming smartphones, giving it the means to make the move over to the production of physical products should it see fit. The possibilities are exciting, but manufacturers such as Samsung and HTC may not welcome the move at all.

For now, Android devices will continue to sell by the million and it will take something very special to make a significant dent in the platform’s market share. With the presence that Android has in the budget phone arena it is also very well positioned to push into new emerging markets, meaning that the number of devices it shifts each year could still grow even further. By no means has Android reached a critical mass yet and the march of the little green robots could go on and on.

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