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Last Updated: November 5th, 2010

Before Apple's iPhone and Google’s Android OS burst onto the mobile device scene in 2007, there were few significant advances in mobile technology. Frankly, "smartphones" (if we could even call them that at the time) were boring: they did little more than email, general messaging, picture taking, some basic apps and games, rudimentary internet browsing, and enterprise integration.

The biggest players at the time were Microsoft Windows Mobile, RIM's Blackberry, Palm, Symbian, and Linux. They all had their respective place in the mobile world (see chart below).

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The Status Of Mobile Operating Systems In Late 2006

EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) was clearly led by Symbian. Japan was split 60/40% Symbian/Linux (just two years prior, Symbian had completely dominated Japan). China mirrored Japan. North America was split between Symbian (10%), Palm (20%), Microsoft (40%), and RIM (30%).

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(Courtesy of http://mobile-thoughts.blogspot.com/2007/03/smartphone-os-market-share-in-2006.html)

As far back as 2003, before his entry into the Android foray, Andy Rubin stated in Business Week that “…there was tremendous potential in developing smarter mobile devices that are more aware of its owner's location and preferences.” He went on to say that “…if people are smart, that information starts getting aggregated into consumer products.” It appears that Andy was more correct than he had ever imagined: indeed, the mobile landscape was about to change so dramatically that it would create a frenzy for smartphones the likes of which we had never seen.

In 2005, there were many rumors that Google was exploring ways to expand its reach to device manufacturers with a focus on developing a handset that concentrated on location-based services. Its biggest obstacle was that it did not have a platform from which to accomplish this objective.

To that end, Google acquired Android in July of 2005. Its co-founders, Andy Rubin, Rich Miner, Nick Sears, and Chris White, had created what was known as only a small mobile software development company. However, despite its diminutive size, this acquisition spurred immediate interest amongst those in the mobile technology field and prompted many to suspect that Google was entering the mobile market arena. Their suspicions proved to be correct.

Almost two and a half years later, on November 5, 2007, Google took the mobile device world by storm by announcing their new Linux-based mobile handset operating system named Android. Not only did they introduce an entirely new mobile OS, they also announced that it was open-source.

This was a direct result of the collaborative efforts of the newly formed Open Handset Alliance. Several companies joined this alliance, such as Google, HTC, Intel, Sprint-Nextel, T-Mobile, and NVIDIA, whose goal was to create open standards for mobile devices. The first device directly from Google was the G1 on T-Mobile which launched in September 2008, and included GPS functions, a 3.1MP camera, and an array of Google apps. This was the beginning of what was to become an exciting adventure for Google and for the entire mobile industry.

Android Operating System Versions

Android 1.1 (released February, 2009)

Features included:

  • Alarm Clock
  • API Demos
  • Browser
  • Calculator
  • Camera
  • Contacts
  • Dev Tools
  • Dialer
  • Email
  • Maps (and StreetView)
  • Messaging
  • Music
  • Pictures
  • Settings

Android 1.5 “Cupcake” was the first major platform release distributable to handsets beginning in May, 2009. This update demonstrated that the OS should be taken seriously by the developer community. The UI was greatly improved over 1.1 and it added the following features:

  • video recording
  • Bluetooth A2DP
  • automatic Bluetooth connecting
  • uploading videos to YouTube and Picassa
  • copy/paste functionality.

Android 1.6 “Donut” was released just a few short months later in September, 2009. This version included:

  • the new Android Market for applications
  • an integrated camera, video recorder, and gallery interface, complete with a multi-select/delete feature
  • gesture search
  • voice search
  • application integration
  • greatly improved text-to-speech functions

The successful launch of the HTC Hero running Android 1.6 propelled the OS to an unexpected level of popularity. As a result, Android finally began to seriously grab the attention of non-Android users and made competitors such as Apple and Microsoft take notice.

Android 2.0/2.1: In record time, another major revision to the OS appeared on October 26, 2009. This time, it was a full version upgrade to Android 2.0/2.1 “Eclair.” This revision included:

  • accelerated hardware speeds
  • more screen size options and resolutions
  • a greatly improved UI
  • Exchange support
  • live wallpapers
  • significantly upgraded virtual keyboards
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • Google Maps 3.1.2

The Android 2.0.1 SDK was pushed out on December 3, 2009, followed by 2.1 on January 10, 2010.

Many Android users and non-users alike have probably wondered, "Why in the world does Android have names of desserts associated with its OS?" This nomenclature began with the release of Android 1.5. Each dessert gets bigger in size (compared side by side upon launch) with the commemoration of each release and is in alphabetical order: cupcake, donut, and eclair. It was expected that version 2.2 would be “flan” which, it turns out, was incorrect. “FroYo” (short for “frozen yogurt”) is the new moniker for Android 2.2 which is being officially released to the Google Nexus One as of this writing. The name for the next revision will be “Gingerbread.”

Android 2.2 “Froyo”: While Nexus One owners are now receiving their OTA Android 2.2 “FroYo” updates, those with other devices are hoping for their own updates in the very near future. This release brings with it an exciting set of upgrades that will leave any smartphone user salivating at the mere thought of it. Some of these feature sets include:

  • full Flash 10.1 support
  • up to five times faster processing
  • portable hotspot capabilities that will support up to eight devices
  • better homescreen with dedicated shortcuts
  • greatly improved Exchange support through Exchange 2010, including remote wipe, auto-discovery, full calendar support, and global address list lookup
  • camera/video enhancements such as: better onscreen control buttons and the highly-anticipated feature of enabling the LED to illuminate during video recording.
  • multiple keyboard languages
  • Android cloud-to-device messaging
  • storing apps on an SD card
  • voice dialing over Bluetooth
  • and so much more

There is a growing chorus of rumors circulating that Android 3.0 "Gingerbread" will be released sometime in the fall and that it will include some really exciting new features.  We can only hope this is true.

Notable Android Devices

For the sake of brevity, this synopsis will include only "game-changing" Android phones in North America.
  • September, 2008: The G1 (also known as the HTC Dream) launches on T-Mobile. Features include: GPS functions, a 3.1mp camera, and a variety of Google apps, such as maps. This release is relatively lackluster but starts to pick up steam with the next device from HTC.
  • Late 2008: Google releases the Android Developer Phone 1 with the intention of giving developers an opportunity to experiment with a real device without being tied to any specific carrier.
  • July, 2009: The HTC Hero. This device comes with its Sense UI that propels the device to the status as a true "iPhone competitor." While it shares some UI features with the iPhone, it also offers its own unique offerings that differentiate it from and improve upon Apple's handset. 
  • November 2, 2009: One of the most significant game-changers in the entire smartphone industry, outside of the iPhone, is when Verizon releases Motorola's Droid. They aggressively market this device with their "Droid Does" advertising campaign that specifically contrasts what the Droid can do against what the iPhone cannot. The strategy works. Droid goes on to sell over 1 million units within its first 74 days on the market. 
  • January 5, 2010: Google holds a press conference and officially releases the Nexus One, the first, and potentially only, completely Google-branded consumer Android device. It is considered the first Android ‘superphone’, due to its beefy 1Ghz Snapdragon CPU. Their attempt to shake up the phone industry with their online only distribution model is later canned, due to weak sales.
  • April 29, 2010: The HTC Droid Incredible from Verizon comes out with a bang and is initially fairly well marketed. Its updated Sense UI is a nice addition to an already great custom UI. However, due to AMOLED screen shortages, the device quickly sells out and its "ship date" keeps getting pushed later and later into the summer. Needless to say, people are not "incredibly" impressed. Verizon later states that they will now use TFT LCD displays for future Incredibles. Is it too little, too late to save the Incredible from an early retirement? 
  • June 4, 2010: Sprint releases the HTC EVO as its newest flagship device in the hopes that it can save its fledgling company from "has been" status. It appears to be working. Sprint sells more Evos than any other device on its network and also sells out several times since its launch. Its 4.3" screen and Sense UI interface is, to many, a better choice than the iPhone 4. 
  • June 15, 2010: The Droid saga continues with the Motorola Droid X and consequently pushes the Incredible to "second" class status as the X becomes the latest and greatest flagship for Verizon. So far, it seems that Verizon is doing everything right with the launch of this device, most notably hosting the CEOs of Verizon, Adobe, Motorola, and Google to make the grand announcement. Its "ginormous" 4.3" screen, non-Motoblur UI, full Flash 10.1 and Froyo 2.2 (later this summer), DLNA support, 720p video recording, and Wi-fi hotspots, are just some of its packed powerhouse of features. Many critics state that this is now THE Android device to beat. 
  • Summer, 2010: Samsung is on a quest to dominate the mobile device world beginning with its Galaxy S series smartphones running Android. The S series will launch in 110 countries this summer and is already confirmed for all four major carriers in the United States. While the Galaxy S is the overarching name of the series worldwide, each carrier in the United States is giving its own special name to the device to differentiate it from other carriers: Captivate on AT&T, Epic 4G on Sprint, Fascinate on Verizon, and Vibrant on T-Mobile.

Conclusion

As the reader can easily see, Android has come a long way since its early days of 2005 and earlier: from just a “notion” in the mind of Andy Rubin back in 2003 about what a device should offer, to Google’s acquisition of Android in 2005, along with the most recent advancements of the OS, and the screamingly fast pace of new device releases. All of this has set us on a very exciting ride with Android. One can only expect that this trajectory toward becoming the number one mobile OS in the world will continue. With its release onto tablets this year and with Google TV (and Google Music?) this fall, we can only imagine where this journey will take us.

  • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

    Great writeup, Ron. Android newbs looking for a quick history will appreciate your efforts.

  • Kellic

    I'm sorry but that's a load of ****. As much as I loath Windows Mobile 6.x the apps on it were solid. I was browsing websites years ago with WM6 and it worked. Some of the apps available for WM6 were pretty damn slick for the time. So to say smartphones weren't smart is just plain wrong.
    What Apple and Android brought to the table though was freshness. Microsoft and RIM had let their OS's stagnate for years without any real forward advancements. Apple and Android kicked them out of their complacency.

    • Ron Hamelin

      Kellic: thanks for your response. I'm not sure I stated that smartphones weren't smart but that they were "boring." I think it's pretty much undisputed that the iPhone and Android devices have pushed smartphones to a whole new level of functionality or, as you say, "freshness." However, even then, I think "freshness" is an understatement as today's devices do far more than the devices used before 2006. Sure, today's devices are fresher, but they're also faster, have greatly improved UIs, and the hardware is much more pleasing to the eye than before.

  • donnythebowler

    "Its 4.3" screen and Sense UI interface is, to many, a better choice than the iPhone 4."

    Correct, except for the Sense part. In my case, it was *despite* the Sense interface.

  • Ron Hamelin

    Exactly, which is why I stated "to many," not "to everyone. "

    • donnythebowler

      Fair enough. My bad. I just hate for Sense to get the credit where, I feel, the HW and Android deserve the credit.

      I stand corrected, but I'd like to point out that I stated, "In my case" to differentiate my self from your "to many".

      Good article, BTW!! I need to apologize a 2nd time for not pointing that out before nitpicking.

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