To the uninitiated, it must seem that Android came into the world fully formed and ready to give Apple the fight of its life. Not so. The Rise of the Robots has been a long haul. Now with market data revealing that it’s the number one OS in both market share and mind share, we take at the milestones that marked its march to the top of the smartphone tree.
2003: It begins
Android Inc is established by once-upon-a-time Apple staffer Andy Rubin (now VP of Engineering at Google and perhaps the most visible public face of the OS) and Rich Milner. Little is known about the company at the time, but rumours were afoot that it was working on a smartphone operating system. They weren’t wrong.
2005: Deal me in
In July 2005 Google acquired 22-month-old start-up Android Inc for an undisclosed sum, which some number-crunchers estimate was "up to" $50 million. The deal was little remarked on in the tech press, no doubt due to the secrecy Android Inc had shrouded itself in. Google was no more forthcoming, revealing only that it had bought the company for its engineering nous and technology.
The levels of mystery are such that one day a Google employee spots the enigmatic Rubin walking around the office with his dog and says: “I really hope that dude is doing something here”. He was. And no doubt, he’s that guy’s boss these days.
2006: Rockin’ Rubin
Rubin and his devs adapt the somewhat arcane (to non-techies) OS Linux into something user friendly and easy to upgrade. Google then hawks its platform around to handset makers and networks and invites them to contribute. It’s the first sign of the openness that will become Android’s hallmark. And in the wake of the recent Android Market malware scare, some would say, it’s Achilles heel.
2007: Avengers Assemble
November sees the loose union of phone market players, who’ve been beavering away on the Android OS, break cover under the banner the Open Handset Alliance. And it’s quite a cast list, including LG, chipmaker Qualcomm, Intel, US networks T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel, Moto and Texas Instruments. Also on board is little-known Taiwanese phone maker HTC, at that point best known for its powerful phones with huge geek appeal but no mass market traction.
In the meantime, work on the OS continues on adapting Linux in conjunction with the Open Handset Alliance (OHA). More excitingly, we’re told the first phones will ship in the second quarter of 2008.
2008: Chasing the Dream
The first-ever Android phone arrives in August the shape of the HTC Dream exclusively on T-Mobile. Re-branded the T-Mobile G1 for us in Blighty, the handset debuts to some smart reviews from the tech press. However, there was much room for improvement. The slide-out physical keyboard was awkwardly placed. What’s more, the build quality and design weren’t going to frighten anyone down in Cupertino, nor sweeten Android’s appeal beyond its core base of geeks.
But despite all that, six months after hitting retail in September the G1 has unit sales of 100,000 in the UK and one million in the US – kicking off Android’s battle for a place at the smartphone maker’s top table.
To put that in perspective, the first-ever iPhone had surpassed the million-mark within 74 days. So, there’s still a long, long way to go.
2009: God, show me magic
In March, the HTC myTouch 3G (that’s the Magic in UK money) hits the US and also passes the million mark in six months. It’s the first-ever budget blower running Android and its keen price point will prove to be Google’s secret weapon in the OS wars.
The first-ever Android OS update lands the very next month. Dubbed Cupcake, Android 1.5 brings a new soft keyboard, homescreen widgets and video recording to the platform.
By the end of the year, it’s Moto’s turn to feel the Android love when the Motorola Droid (re-christened the Milestone in Europe) sells 250,000 in its week of release in the US. And in so doing, it pretty much singlehandedly saves the phone maker from obsolescence and oblivion. They hadn’t had it this good since the RAZR flip phones ruled the earth.
2010: The year Android broke
The year starts with a bang when, after endless speculation, the first-ever Google branded phone hits. Taking its name from Philip K Dick’s Cyberpunk novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the Nexus One doesn’t fulfil the sales expectations of some analysts. That’s due partly to an experimental new retail model paradigm that saw it sold exclusively online via Google’s site. But even so, for reasons we’ll explain later, the Nexus One is a handset whose status grows considerably as the months wear on.
The HTC Desire breaks cover in February. It’s the most powerful Android phone so far, packing some serious grunt thanks to the 1GHz Snapdragon processor plus a pin-sharp AMOLED display and HTC’s winning Sense social networking focussed custom skin. The Wildfire lands a few months later and although it lacks the might of its older brother, stands out for a stylish aluminium unibody construction and jutting lower ‘chin’ – adding a touch of design smarts to Android and proving that geek and chic can be happier bedfellows than anyone realised.
While those two phones establish HTC as the go-to Android phone maker, its status soon comes under attack from an unexpected source, namely Samsung. That’s underlined when the ten million-selling Galaxy S grabs the title of the European Smartphone of the Year at the European Imaging and Sound Association (EISA) Awards 2010-2011.
Elsewhere, we get the first Android tablets. Amid cheapie efforts from clothes retailer Next and the smartphone cum slate hybrid the Dell Streak, the pick of the bunch is the Samsung Galaxy Tab. However, while it’s a noble try, the fact that it operates on a platform created for smartphones means it’s a lot less slick than the iPad. Particular deficiencies are the music player and relatively low resolution screen.
The year’s big update news is the arrival of Froyo – or to give its more formal title Android 2.2. Depending on the phone you went for, Froyo offers tethering to allow owners to use their phones as de facto Wi-Fi mobile broadband dongles, as well as high-definition video recording in 720p and Flash Player support.
However, the roll-out is far from smooth. Some UK customers sporting lovely new-ish Galaxy S phones waited until January to get it, after networks and manufacturers struggled to get the update to work with their custom skins and bloatware services. It’s the first suggestion that Android’s openness isn’t without disadvantages.
Conversely, the fact that the Google Nexus One runs vanilla Android meant that they got Froyo as soon as it was available. So much so that all of a sudden people who’d opted for Google’s phone looked pretty smart after all.
By the end of the year, it’s Android Gingerbread 2.3 that’s on everyone’s lips. However, when it debuts at the back-end of December on the second Google phone, the Nexus S, the incremental nature of the update is a bit of a damp squib. Still, the new onscreen keyboard was welcome, as was the more streamlined user interface.
2011: Double trouble
The year’s two biggest tech events , namely the Mobile World Congress and the Consumer Electronics Show – are dominated by Android 2.3 Gingerbread powered phones. The major change from last year’s challengers is the addition of beefed up dual core processors, which feature in the Samsung Galaxy S2, the LG Optimus 2X and the Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Arc and camera-focussed Neo.
However, the phone that steals the headlines are LG’s Optimus 3D, which adds 3D media playback, gaming, video recording and still photography to the Android platform. A novelty? Maybe. But as USP’s go it’s a pretty good one.
At the same show, after a welter of leaks that made it the worst kept secret ever and years of rumours that a PlayStation phone is being prepped, we get our first official look at the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play. Whether it’ll transform the somewhat moribund Android gaming scene remains to be seen. But dedicated physical controls, PSP games and a games download store dubbed PlayStation Suite certainly augur well. Best of all, though, is that anyone with an Android phone running 2.3 or above will get be able to use it.
HTC’s product line-up, by contrast, is greeted with a muted response. The perception that the devices, which conspicuously lack dual core processors, are underpowered and offer little new. Just 12 months after it was the golden boy of the Android world, it seems the Taiwanese phone maker’s crown could be slipping already.
2011 is also year that Android ramps up its challenge in the tablet space in the shape of three new additions to the Galaxy Tab range, the Motorola Xoom and the HTC Flyer. That was marked by the creation of Honeycomb - the first version of the software created specifically with tablets in mind, adding larger icons to take advantage of tablets’ extra display real estate, a 3D user interface, new notifications and revamped Android Market.
Android makes the wrong kind of headlines in February when data mining malware is discovered at the Android Market disguised as some of the store’s most popular free titles. The problem is sorted out OTA within a matter of days. But not before it’s infected in the region of 250,000 handsets and raised hitherto unheard calls for some kind of vetting process at the store.
Still the good news is that in February market analysts Canalys reveal that Android is now number one in the smartphone arena, with marketshare of 32.9 per cent of handsets sold in the fourth quarter of 2010 compared with Nokia and Apple’s figures of 30.6 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. It’s taken two years from the first phone going on sale to get there, but Android is now top dog. And with the next OS update for handsets promising to bring the best features of Honeycomb to smartphones and Nokia floundering around cluelessly, it could be there for a while yet.