Android is the world’s most popular smartphone platform, accounting for 68% of global sales. Developed by search giant Google, the operating system (OS) is the software behind many of the most powerful handsets available, including Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III and the HTC One X.
As well as being the computer code that powers many leading devices, Android also has a huge presence at the lower end of the market, with cut-price success stories such as the Samsung Galaxy Ace and LG L3 also running the software.
But what exactly is Android and how does it work? Here we take a close look at Google’s mobile platform, going to the very heart of the OS to see how it operates and what it has to offer.
Android is a platform for smartphones and tablets in the same way that Windows is a platform for PCs. While any device, be it a phone or a computer, is packed full of powerful hardware like processors and memory, it is all useless without the software to run all the programs.
The Android operating system acts as the brain of the device, it tells all the other parts of the phone when and how they should perform, it divides power between various programs and functions and generally provides the user with an easy, user-friendly way of accessing all the features and functions from within the device.
In a nutshell, Android is the software that enables a phone to work and like other mobile platforms Google’s OS has various characteristics and idiosyncrasies that are all its own.
As a basic way of looking at the software, Android consists of a number of layers which are piled on top of each other to create the final product. The two main ones are essentially the operating system and the user interface.
While the term ‘operating system’ is often used as a catch-all phrase that encompasses the whole of a mobile platform (we have already used it as such in this very article) it really refers to the foundations of a platform on which everything else is built. The operating system is effectively the bottom layer of the software, this sits directly on top of a phone’s hardware (CPU, memory, camera), it then connects the hardware to the actual applications, for example if a user is using a photo application such as Instagram, the OS will tell the phone to turn on the camera.
The Android operating system is available from Google for free, with manufacturers able to download the software and use it for their own purposes as they wish. While use of Android as a brand name (and its related logos and trademarks) is restricted and licensed , the actual computer code that makes up the OS can be obtained by anyone with the technical knowledge to put it to use.
While Android-powered smartphones and tablets are far and away the most common method in which the platform is used, modified versions of Google’s OS have appeared in Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets and camera manufacturer Nikon has even made a digital photo frame which runs the software.
Android is built around Linux, another free, open-source software package which provides a basis for the way in which Google’s platform works. The search giant isn’t the first company to have employed the Linux software as the basis for a mobile platform, with both HP’s WebOS and Nokia’s Maemo having been built around the open-source code. However, Google’s project has retained much of the customisable nature which is intrinsic to Linux in the way it operates, with manufacturers (and even end-users) able to adapt the software as they see fit.
Sitting on top of the operating system is the user interface – the part which gives a platform its look and feel. This is the last software layer between a device and the user itself – whereas hardware and the OS are buried deep within a handset it is the user interface (as its name suggests) that is the part with which a person interacts.
A user interface consists of all the icons, widgets and homescreens seen on the mobile device along with wallpapers, notification menus and great deal of other things. While there is always something of a blurring of the lines between operating system and user interface, the two are distinct entities which primarily exist for different purposes, one to form a link between a device’s hardware and its applications and one to make these applications accessible to the user.
When a manufacturer acquires the Android software it comes with a stock user interface which sits on top of the operating system, giving a user access to the phone’s deeper functions. Android’s stock UI can be seen on the Nexus family of devices, including Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus and the Asus Nexus 7 tablet, both of which feature the full, unaltered version of Google’s platform.
This stock UI consists of everything that is needed to make Android run, with customisable homescreens, a variety of native apps and a standard browser, based on the same WebKit software from which Apple has built its Safari mobile browser.
In terms of appearance, the stock Android user interface is very paired-back and has few distinctive features, indicating that it is designed to be adapted and modified. However, Nexus devices have consistently received positive reviews and the unaltered Android platform is generally well thought of by consumers.
Despite this, many manufacturers choose to adapt the Android user interface to suit a style of their own, making sometimes distinctive changes to the appearance of the platform and the way in which it operates.
HTC’s Sense user interface is an example of what has become known as ‘re-skinning’, changing the look of the Android UI so that a particular manufacturer’s stylistic identity can be recognised. Sense itself has become so developed that it has gone through several significant re-workings of its own while keeping a consistent look that will be familiar to HTC users.
Samsung recently introduced a new version of its TouchWIz UI that can be seen on the Galaxy S III, Note II and Galaxy S III Mini. Both Sense and TouchWiz now feature their own distinctive methods of unlocking a device, while the weather widget included with HTC’s UI has almost become a trademark for the Taiwanese company.
However, not all manufacturers fully re-skin the Android devices they produce, with some making just a few alterations. A good example of this can be seen in Motorola’s recent RAZR i, the user interface of which bears little difference to the stock Android version. The Google-owned firm has embellished the UI with just a few elements, such as its innovative Circles widget and a quick-access settings menu which slides out from the left-hand side of the homescreen.
The open source nature of Android follows through to the UI itself, with many aspects of an Android phone subject to customisation. While themes and wallpapers can be changed on many platforms, the feeling of control and adaptability that Android has is unique, with the platform even having a visible file system that can be altered as the user dictates. Having this level of control over a device’s workings is something that will seem alien to users of iOS.
Since it was first introduced, Android has seen a number of reworkings and new versions, with extra features having been incorporated into the platform gradually over time. Since early 2009, each of these iterations has been named after a particular confectionery, with the titles emerging in alphabetical order. Although this method may seem peculiar, Google isn’t alone – Intel has for years followed a similar theme, naming its CPUs after rivers and mountains.
While the association is arbitrary the names themselves have become well-used within the mobile industry and are often an easier way of identifying particular iterations of the software than the numbers which accompany each version.
Two of these iterations continue to dominate the Android market, despite neither of them being the latest version of the software. Gingerbread, released in December 2010 and the subsequent iteration Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS).
When Gingerbread was introduced it brought with it several small but very useful features, such as adding support for copy-and-paste to allowing text to be moved between apps.
Also incorporated was NFC support, something which had not been seen on previous versions and which has still not been fully taken on board by the public. Samsung’s Nexus S was launched to coincide with the update, and featured a 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM.
Gingerbread was followed by Honeycomb, a version of Android which was specifically tailored for use on tablet devices, although this update wasn’t widely disseminated by networks and manufacturers due to a lack of devices able to run it. The next iteration of the software made for smartphones was Ice Cream Sandwich, which emerged in October 2011 and has been the launch platform for many of 2012’s flagship handsets.
ICS was a big update for Android, with the most significant feature being support for onscreen navigational keys rather than the physical ones seen on handsets launched with previous versions of Google’s platform.
Also brought to the software were folders for app icons and a new typeface, along with photo-editing functions integrated into the camera app. The other major innovation was support for the mobile version of Google’s Chrome browser.
The latest version of Android to be released is Jelly Bean which has seen the introduction of what is known as Project Butter, a Google design scheme which has aimed to make the Android UI faster and smoother, along with bringing minor alterations such as widgets that can be resized to fit different areas of the homescreens.
Also brought in with the latest iteration is Google Now, the intuitive personal assistant which can read your habits and tastes and deliver information accordingly.
Figures show that the older versions of Android are still more popular than the most recent, which is due in part to the alterations many manufacturers make to the OS and UI. Each new iteration that Google releases has to then go through another period of development with each handset-maker before it can be sent out to consumers.
This is why new versions of Android always drip through slowly, being taken up over a period of time, whereas a manufacturer like Apple which supports only its own in-house devices can boast a much faster uptake with each new software release.
Overall, Android is a mobile platform which has a sound level of customisability that few others can boast, be that in terms of what smartphone manufacturers can do with the software or the way in which a user can tailor it to their tastes. While older platforms like Symbian gave access to file systems and the inner workings of the software, there is no major platform currently available on which so much can be altered.
Whether a tech expert or occasional user, there are ways that Google’s mobile platform can be customised to your needs, from changing the very roots of the software to simply swapping the wallpaper on the homescreen. Android is versatile, flexible and very well suited to the requirements of a huge range of smartphone users.