In Part 1 of our 8-part series on the History of Android, we look at the humble origins of what has grown into the most popular mobile operating system in the world.
Android didn't just happen. The origins of the world's dominant mobile operating system can be traced right back to the beginning of the previous decade, through the work of founder Andy Rubin, and Google, which was eager to establish itself as a major player in the mobile future.
In the first part of our Android History series, we look back on the earliest origins of the OS, the path to launching the original Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, and some of the influences that shaped Android's early days. And we'll take a rare look at one of the early Android prototypes that never saw the light of day.
The mobile world, circa 2006
In the world of technology in general, and mobile technology in particular, the mid-2000s now seems like ancient history.
The rumored iPhone was actively denied by Apple. Netbooks were the hot new category of ultraportable computing device. The tablets of the day looked like your clunky work laptop with the keyboard chopped off. There was no Twitter. YouTube was a scrappy startup. Windows Vista was a thing.
The smartphones of the time were, by modern standards, slow, clunky and ugly — a landscape dominated by Symbian, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry where productivity was king. Though the idea of a phone being more than just a phone was steadily gaining traction, the concept of a mainstream smartphone remained something of an oxymoron.
The smartphones of the mid-2000s weren't just basic from a technological standpoint, they were a minefield for developers, and in many markets mired in carrier restrictions — far more than what we endure today. User experience and ease of development came second to competing corporate interests — in contrast to the relatively open world of PC and web development.
That's the background against which Android — now the world's most popular mobile OS — was conceived. And as we'll discover through this series, Android's openness — though not without its foibles — allowed it to gain traction against the closed competition.
Andy Rubin and Danger
Several years before Android existed, there was a small mobile software company called Danger, founded by veteran Apple engineer Andy Rubin.
The one huge claim to fame Danger had was the Hiptop, a smartphone with a landscape keyboard and software that made instant messaging, web browsing, and email equally important in the interface.
Through a partnership with T-Mobile, Danger rebranded the Hiptop to Sidekick, and the cult following that brand gained was unique for its time.
Danger's services, rather than the hardware itself, was the product being sold
What made Danger's Sidekick so successful was a revenue-sharing business model that, at the time, was wildly different from the standard mobile business model.
Danger's services, rather than the hardware itself, was the product being sold. By selling the hardware dangerously close to cost and sharing service revenue with T-Mobile, Sidekicks were able to create a niche that competed directly with Blackberry and Microsoft in the smartphone space.
Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin soon were spotted rocking Sidekicks everywhere they went — after all, what could be better than being able to use Google Search no matter where you were? Then Danger's board of directors voted to replace Andy Rubin. Using a domain name he'd owned for a while already, Rubin formed a new company focused on developing a platform that was open to all software designers.
Android, Inc. was a standalone software company with no product to sell for two years. During most of this time, Rubin basically funded the company himself. With a small team of software engineers and a plan to make the next generation of smartphone software, the company focused on an open-source evolution of many of the ideas that started at Danger.
By focusing on the best web-connected experience they could, and creating an environment any developer could build on, Android had a solid plan that investors quickly jumped on when it was finally pitched to them in 2005. While plenty of investors were looking to get in on this next-gen mobile experience, Google found itself in need of a smartphone company to compete with Microsoft and Blackberry. Page and Brin wanted more phones with Google as the default search engine, and an open platform like Android offered a great way to accomplish exactly that.
Page and Brin wanted more phones with Google as the default search engine.
By the end of 2005, Rubin and his team were set up in offices in Mountain View, Calif., hidden away from the world, while they worked with this new company to finish this combined vision.
Prototypes: The road from Sooner to the G1
But software is nothing without hardware. And while many will remember the T-Mobile G1 as the first Android phone, sporting a QWERTY slider design and a large (for the time) touchscreen, this was just one of many designs under consideration by Google and manufacturer partner HTC, which for many years lived as a nameless ODM.
The HTC-built 'Sooner' looked more like the BlackBerry devices of the time.
The best-known prototype handset was known by the codename "Sooner." The HTC-built slab looked more like the BlackBerry devices of the time than the touch-focused designs to come, with a full QWERTY keyboard below a 320x240 display.
HTC Europe's Product and Services Director, Graham Wheeler, told Android Central that the partnership with Google consisted of these two main designs, and that for HTC and its device testers Android represented a drastic change from the Windows Mobile-based smartphones of the time. "There were two different IDs — a QWERTY keyboard design, and then the G1 as well. So we were looking at them both," Wheeler says. "It was a different OS and had a very different paradigm to Windows Mobile at the time, which was much more tech-savvy."
Reflecting on HTC's history with Windows Mobile in the mid-2000s, HTC America President Jason Mackenzie told AC, "If you go back to that time it was actually a big risk that HTC took. And at that time Microsoft and Google weren't exactly the best of friends."
"At that time, even with the momentum that Apple was generating with iPhone, there were people who said 'I need a keyboard.'"
The company's CEO also played a key role in getting HTC in on the ground floor with Android, Mackenzie explains. "Peter Chou had a good relationship with Andy Rubin going back to when he was at Danger. So they talked, and what we were really excited about was a platform that was Internet-based and giving consumers an opportunity to put the Internet in their pockets."
"It was a time when [consumers] weren't all comfortable with an all-touch screen. Even with the momentum that Apple was generating with iPhone, there were people who said 'I need a keyboard.' RIM was still a successful company at that time. So I think both parties saw an opportunity — let's enable a strong touch interface that delivers the Internet, puts that in people's pocket — but that's kind of a gateway to this new touch thing."
It would've been difficult for anyone to predict the meteoric rise that Android would eventually enjoy, but Mackenzie remembers plenty of buzz around the G1 from within HTC prior to launch.
"We were excited to really, really break the chains from our engineers."
"I can remember being super-excited about it. We knew it was going to be big. [Google] were all-in behind it. I think we knew it had the potential given their experience with the Internet, given the platform and the roots of it and the freedom that we had as a manufacturer to drive innovation in the platform. Because as good a partner as Microsoft was and is, Google's strategy was much different in the sense that 'OK, we're giving you a platform and you can go innovate. We want you — HTC — to innovate.'"
"We were excited to really, really break the chains from our engineers."
Hands-on with the 'Sooner' Android prototype
Every Android fan knows about the T-Mobile G1 (aka the HTC Dream) as the first Android-powered phone made available to consumers. But before that milestone was 'Sooner,' an unreleased prototype device also made by HTC. We've had the chance to go hands-on with this piece of Android history, so check out our retrospective to learn more.
The iPhone Influence
There's no denying the historical impact of the iPhone on the mobile landscape. Though it wasn't the first full touchscreen phone, the iPhone re-thought the way a smartphone user experience should work, paving the way for the responsive, touch-based smartphones we all use today. When it was first unveiled in January 2007, however, many rivals were keen to dismiss it.
Steve Ballmer, then-CEO of Microsoft, famously laughed off the original iPhone's high price, carrier limitations and data speed restrictions. BlackBerry-maker RIM was equally dismissive — at least publicly.
But it seems Google, with its own mobile OS already in the oven, may have been a more agile competitor. In 2013 The Atlantic reported on the reaction to the iPhone event from higher-ups on the Android team.
"As a consumer I was blown away. I wanted one immediately. But as a Google engineer, I thought 'We're going to have to start over,'" Googler Chris DeSalvo is quoted as saying. "What we had suddenly looked just so ... '90s [...] It's just one of those things that are obvious when you see it."
"What we had suddenly looked just so ... '90s."
Andy Rubin's reaction was equally visceral, according to The Atlantic — "Holy crap. I guess we're not going to ship that phone."
"That phone" was "Sooner," the HTC-built device with a physical keyboard. The prevailing argument has been that the decision to ship a different phone — the touchscreen-centric "Dream," which became the T-Mobile G1 — was directly due to the arrival of the iPhone. Google could've launched Android on Sooner, well, sooner, but held off until it had something better capable of competing with Apple's offering.
Others within the Android team have refuted that this is the way things played out internally. Nevertheless, there's no denying that the iPhone kicked off the trend towards touchscreen-centric handsets that has continued to this day. All competitors would be forced to react to this eventually, and it turns out Android was among the first to do so.
The early days of the iPhone
Like it or loathe it, there's no denying that the iPhone was one of the most significant mobile devices of the past decade, seriously accelerating the trend towards big-screened handsets and moving forward mobile software design in a big way. If you're after more iPhone history, iMore has you covered.
The Dream comes alive
Several prototypes were designed and rejected before the G1 was finalized and released in 2008. Companies like LG and Apple were pioneering an all-touch operating system, but designers still felt the need for a physical keyboard and navigation buttons, which gave the G1 its lovable (but chunky) design. We expect there was also a bit of Sidekick DNA built in as well, as there is a familiar feel when you slide the LCD up and out.
The design and form factor weren't the only things under development. The G1's software brought things to mobile that just hadn't been done before, or at least not done particularly well. True multitasking, copy and paste and a pull-down notification system were things mobile users got excited about. While a bit clunky and horribly slow by today's standards, the first version of Android was unique and a foretelling of things to come, regardless of who built your phone.
When the dust settled, and everyone involved signed off all the papers, we end up with one of the most innovative phones ever. The specs won't impress anyone buying a smartphone today — a 528MHz single core CPU with 192MB of RAM and a 3.2-inch 320 x 480 display — but they were enough to drive the software and show everyone how much better a smartphone could be compared to what they were using back in 2008.
The G1 was a perfect base to build Android into what it's become, simply because Google was willing to risk being different.
We take most of this for granted today. In a smartphone world that at the time was dominated by BlackBerry's Curve, companies like Google and Apple were doing things a different way. The G1 was a perfect base to build Android into what it's become, simply because Google was willing to risk being different. From the beginning, Google was leveraging open-source software in a way that would entice hardware manufacturers and carriers alike, in a package that provided services and an ecosystem that consumers grew to love. HTC was "allowed" to market the G1 as the HTC Dream, under its own brand with its own slight modifications, worldwide. Google providing a free operating system, complete with an application platform and distribution method, had companies like Samsung and Motorola quickly designing their own devices to take advantage.
Only a few die-hard Android fans will still be using a G1 (and even then you'd be right to question them), but there is no denying that its development and release has had an immense impact on today's mobile landscape, and Google's rise to dominance.
NEXT: Android is born
With the first Android hardware out on the market, the stage was set for Google's OS to spread into the world. The partnership with HTC and T-Mobile was a start, but it would take more than a single phone on a single carrier for Android to take on the established players, not to mention Apple, which was growing from strength to strength in mobile.
In this series' next installment, we'll look at the impact of the G1 on the mobile landscape, the early visual styles of Android, and the nuts and bolts of the Android Open-Source Project. And we'll see how an huge partnership with Motorola and Verizon resulted in the emergence of an iconic brand in the U.S.
Words: Alex Dobie, Russell Holly, Jerry Hildenbrand and Andrew Martonik
Design: Derek Kessler and Jose Negron
Series Editor: Alex Dobie
Andy Rubin photo: By Joi via Wikimedia Commons