Hi, Android! Sorry your present is a little late, it took a while to wrap it. Five years ago yesterday, Google's then-CEO Eric Schmidt joined other members of the newly-formed Open Handset Alliance to announce the Android operating system. Back then, we were still nearly a year away from an actual Gphone (and yes, people really called it that) and Sprint and T-Mobile were the only US carriers even interested. Now, Android is installed on over 400 million devices, nearly every carrier in the world wants a piece of the action, and the platform as a whole is the single largest mobile OS ever.
So how do you get from there to here?
Waiting For The First Update
Most folks think that the Android world didn't start spinning until the G1. Not so. On November 5th 2007, Google announced the platform, and about a week later, the SDK—along with a metric ton of information about the OS—came out. Not that you'd recognize it, of course. While there were some familiar elements in the initial demo, you'd be hard-pressed to find much similarity between it and the UI of today.
Back in the day, Android was already designed to run on a wide variety of hardware. Contrary to popular belief, there wasn't a single, Blackberry-esque Gphone prototype, but rather a few different types of hardware that Google engineers were using to test the OS (skip to around 3:00 to see a touchscreen Android device). That wasn't the most interesting part, though.
Notifications. Independent app development. Interoperability between system apps and functions and other software. These were the fundamental elements of Android that were designed to push the OS forward and many still remain hallmarks of the OS. Sure, other platforms have implemented nifty notifications, but Android has always been on the cutting edge. And, while Apple did end up creating the App Store first (alongside the iPhone 3G, released in 2008), Google also intended this to be a developer-centric OS from the start. Finally, let's not forget the extensibility of things like Maps. It may seem trivial now, but when Google said to developers that they wouldn't have to build their own maps to construct something on top of it? Oh man. That was life-altering.
It's also worth recognizing how different things could've been. While Android was always meant to be open, in the early days Google specified that there was no guarantee manufacturers and carriers would allow third-party development. Looking back, the Android Certification Program may have single-handedly saved the platform. Requiring a certain level of openness and consistency in order to gain access to things like Gmail and the Market effectively prevented other companies from building on the OS while locking out others and ultimately stifling innovation.
Even back then, though, XDA was already beginning to blossom with Android porting goodness. Yes, HTC had devices long before the Dream, and some of them even got their own pre-release Android builds. It was an exciting, if uncertain time for the Google phone world. Until we finally started to see the Dream become reality...
The G1, The Hero, And The First Year Of Android In The Wild
In October 2008, we finally saw the arrival of the initial Android handset. Stateside, it was called the G1, worldwide, the Dream. This was the first phone to see the light of day and it launched both the Android platform and the Google ecosystem. Complete with Gmail, Calendar, Talk, and the Android Market, this unit blurred the lines between the OS that we'd heard described as a "software stack" and the "with Google" experience that ultimately morphed into what we now call the Nexus program.
The first year was rough, though. The early designs actually included a hardware Phone and Hangup button (yeah, remember those?), in addition to the more familiar Home, Menu, Search, and Back buttons. Over time, the Hangup button morphed into the power button you find on nearly every Android device ever and shed it's call-ending powers while the call button disappeared entirely. The trackball tried to survive in a few incarnation early on—the trackpad on the initial Incredible comes to mind—but ultimately, it was also lost to the annals of history.
It's enough to make the eyes bleed in retrospect.
The awkwardness didn't end there. Take the G1. Please. I can't get rid of it. It was bulky, fat, and in the very beginning, it didn't even have a software keyboard. Yes, it had a touchscreen (single touch only), but no way to enter any text without sliding out the rack of buttons. Moreover, typing required reaching around that giant HTC butt that the company liked to stick on everything. Using the first Android device was just as awkward and clumsy as your first sexual encounter. We were all happy it was finally here, but the phone had a long way to go to improve its performance.
There were some glimmering bits of hope, though. Despite the early awkwardness, the G1 had many of the basic elements that we still appreciate to this day: notifications, for starters. The slide-down shade, while absent from prototypes, was there on day one, ready to manage every email, IM, text message, and missed call. Cloud data sync was another distinguishing feauture. In the days prior to getting my G1 back in 2008, I added all of my phone numbers to Google Contacts on the web. When I started up my phone, they were immediately available. It was the very last time that I ever had to transfer my contacts from anywhere to anywhere.
And people used to pay for carriers do that.
"Wait, ugliness doesn't have to be part of the Android spec sheet?"
It was a while after the launch of the G1 before we finally saw new Android phones. Back then you didn't get a new handset launch every time someone sneezed. The next "Gphone" anyone cared about was the HTC Hero. It was the first device to showcase a manufacturer skin. The first to break away from the stock UI experience (and for good reason). In fact, for a while, it convinced us that manufacturers knew how to do the interface better than Google. It wasn't the first keyboard-less slab on the platform (that honor would go to the HTC Magic), but it certainly did it in style. The hardware design marked significant baby steps towards HTC's still legendary ability to put together a device that didn't feel like flimsy crap.
What followed afterwards was a parade of "me too" devices. Samsung's i7500 (pre-Galaxy branding), the Motorola Cliq, and the MyTouch 3G (a rebranded HTC Magic). For a while, it seemed like all the Android manufacturers in the world were shooting for the low end of the market, content to leave the then-incumbent iPhone unchallenged atop its throne.
When Verizon got in the game, there was awesome ad...
For most people, when their grandchildren ask them when Android started to become a big deal, they'll say "when it promised to be 'race horse duct-taped to a SCUD missile fast'." In October 2009, the Droid was announced, and it was a beast. It brought with it Android 2.0, the first Verizon phone for the platform, and perhaps most important of all, Navigation. Oh yeah, and some kick-ass ads.
...after awesome ad...
In the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, there's a scene on a beach where two different camps of Apple employees are fighting with each other over whose product is better. When it was brought up to a young Steve Jobs, in the hopes that he would end the in-fighting, he simply replied, "People need a cause." The need to fight, to have something to prevail over, and more importantly a chance at winning, is at the heart of every great ambition. The Droid line is what finally gave avid Android fans the hope, the drive, and the banner of war they needed.
...after awesome ad.
This wasn't just a matter of making a good smartphone, anymore. Sure, the comparisons to the iPhone had been made since the G1 first came out, but these ads brought it to the forefront. Average users suddenly started having opinions on open-versus-closed. Interchangeable batteries were a badge of honor. There was a reason that these ads were testosterone-driven powerhouses. It wasn't because some marketing guy thought that girls like iPhones, so hey, we should pitch Androids to guys. It was because they knew a war was coming. And you don't call troops to battle with passive, light-hearted commercials. You do it with a horn and drum.
Of course, what's a soldier without his weapon? The biggest asset the Droid army had was Navigation. A very short Verizon exclusive, this app introduced turn-by-turn navigation to the masses. At the time (and still to an extent today), people used to buy dedicated GPS units if they wanted to have a box squawk instructions at them while they're driving. This app put an end to that practice, if you so choose. The Android device in your pocket right now either has completely free voice-guided directions, or you got robbed. Plain and simple.
As great as that generation of Android devices was, though, it was nothing compared to what came next.
Evo And The Era Of The War Machines
If you've ever heard someone use the phrase "underwhelming" to describe an Android product launch, it's probably the Evo's fault. After the Droid fired the first real shot across the iPhone's bow, it was time for the platform to put up or shut up. This phone didn't just bring a laundry list of impressive-at-the-time specs, it had its own special set of firsts for Android hardware:
4G (albeit WiMax)
8MP rear camera
Matt Buchanan of Gizmodo said it best, when describing the statement the Evo was making:
You know that scene in Iron Man 2, where Justin Hammer asks Rhodey which weapons he wants inside War Machine—and Rhodey says "all of them"? That's exactly how the Evo 4G was born. Somebody said "everything."
It could be argued that no Android device since has been so overwhelmingly amazing, so obviously maxed out on specs and features. Whether that's because manufacturers release so many phones they all seem iterative, because there's little else to add, or the Evo was just that awesome is an argument we'll have for years, I'm sure. What's inarguable is that this thing got people excited.
It also set trends for smartphones that continue to this day. After this monster came out, most devices worked to match much of what it had to offer: bigger screens, some kind of 4G technology, front-facing cameras. All things that are now standard in any modern device. In fact, while Apple may receive credit for proliferating FaceTime, the Evo came out in the same month. It's just as responsible for secondary self-shooters becoming standard as the iPhone is.
Despite coming out 8 months later, the Thunderbolt was still following the lead set by the Evo.
The iconic nature of the Evo did eventually wear off, and unfortunately Sprint let its best brand lose the luster it once had. Ironically, though, it accomplished what the Nexus One had set out to do: it gave the Android world something to aspire to. The Nexus One was a great device, but due to the complete lack of carrier subsidies, few users actually saw it. While Google got its stock experience program together, Sprint and HTC teamed up to set the bar higher than it had ever been before.
The next year or so saw iteration after iteration as each manufacturer pushed harder to come out on top. That same year saw the initial Galaxy S line launch in the US, in four different versions with four different brands and even four sets of specs. Ironically, the year that saw a hearkening call to hardware dominance also saw the biggest symbol of branding and UI dissonance the platform had seen yet. Meanwhile, criticisms that Android's UI was difficult to learn and unattractive began to mount. Oh, and did we mention the iPad? It may have been a high point in Android's history, but it wouldn't be long before it needed a hero. Fortunately, it got one.
Tablets, Ice Cream Sandwich, And The Duarte Age
No one knew it at the time, but Palm's bleak present was the brightest hope for Android's future.
It actually began between the announcement and subsequent release of the Evo. Palm, the company behind WebOS and the beloved—if not terribly successful—Pre phones achieved much of its good name due to the works of Matias Duarte. As the UI designer for the platform, Duarte made a name for himself as being more than a little talented in creating interfaces people loved. After the company was purchased by HP, he left for Google's greener pastures.
As soon as he arrived, the transition started. Android had, until that point, been breaking apart. Phones of every shape, size, and hardware configuration were popping up faster than Google could create APIs for them. Behind the scenes, Google had already begun work on its first Google Experience tablet, and Samsung was moving even faster, with the original Galaxy Tab on the market by late 2010 - using a stretched out phone interface. Under Duarte's direction, the long, grueling process toward a unified and coherent UI began.
One UI, many screens.
The first [minor] cosmetic changes came in Gingerbread, where we saw the notification bar turn black in stock Android, which mirrored a much more subdued theme that would become the staple of the OS. With the release of the Xoom, we got a huge glimpse at the new UI with Holo. The Navigation Bar, Action Bar, and Fragments API were introduced not only make to make apps easily scalable to wildly varying screen sizes, but also to take baby steps toward making the entire platform feel like a coherent whole.
The magnum opus came in the form of Ice Cream Sandwich. While the jaw-dropper effect of the new version may have been minimized because we saw much of the new UI in Honeycomb, 4.0 was the single biggest change in the phone interface in all of Android's history. It was beautiful, elegant, and most importantly, unified. The (relatively) brief period of a closed and separated platform was at an end. ICS meant new features, APIs, and any other upgrades would roll out to all categories of device, no distinctions.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the Google universe, Larry Page had returned to the helm of the mother ship with a similar vision: bring all of the company's products together under one roof. Make it accessible, make it social, and make it simple. It might not have been directly related to Android, but with Page working to bring all the chaotic and splintered projects into a more streamlined home, Andy Rubin still pushing Android forward, and Matias Duarte making it all look beautiful, it was a whole new era for everyone's favorite information giant.
First The Nexus Program, Then The World
This all brings us to present day. Last week, Google announced the Nexus 4, the Nexus 10, and an updated Nexus 7 model. In a way, we finally see what Duarte, Page, Rubin and everyone at Google have all been working toward since Google first acquired Android in 2005. A unified platform comprised of several form factors, manufactured by a range of companies, spearheading an even larger and more diverse market of products outside the Nexus program made up of virtually every hardware and software idea known to man.
This is what Android was always meant to be.
A dream five years in the making.
So what's the next frontier? Well, for starters, Google Play. It's no coincidence that, alongside all the shiny new Nexus announcements, we also got a load of new countries that received support for various Play Store services. Movie and music purchases rolled out to five new countries, and device sales were announced for more nations than any previous Google-exclusive hardware launch. Not to mention a couple weeks prior, the advent of paid apps in India. Not the biggest country that needs it, but a major stepping stone. In short, you know that problem everyone's been saying the company has with launching things internationally? Well, Google's listening.
This one will be an even more ambitious project than simply creating Android, of course. Keeping in mind that Apple and Microsoft were founded in the mid-70s and have both been distributing hardware and software worldwide for a long, long time. Google, on the other hand, only began venturing into hardware sales a bit under three years ago. Three. Prior to that point, the company had little need for an international presence outside of a website. Financial and commerce infrastructure, hardware distribution, and international trade logistics all have to be dealt with from the ground up. The bad news is that, for a while at least, yes, there are going to be plenty of things that the info giant will roll out to just the US, or a few, select countries. The good news is, that trend is changing, and will continue to do so over time.
A Whole New World
The future's never looked brighter for Android. The ever-shifting tide of software development isn't over. Not by a long shot. Now that Google's tied up a lot of its loose ends and has done considerable work in their "more wood behind fewer arrows" initiative, it can set its sights on bigger targets. If there's one thing we can count on, it's that none of the major platforms are going to back down.
In the meantime, though, it's nice to sit back and take a look at how far we've come. Five years ago, a rag-tag group of engineers and Google execs got together to announce an idealistic and ambitious platform that aimed to change the shape of the mobile market as we knew it. Today, that goal has not only been reached, but it's gone farther than any of us ever anticipated.
So, grab a slice of cake, light a candle, and hug a Nexus today.
Photo credit: Ahmed Alnusif