In Part 2 of our 8-part series on the origins of Android, we take you back to the platform's early days: the launch of the T-Mobile G1 and the rise of the Droid.
As the first Android phones started to trickle out, led by the T-Mobile-branded, HTC-made, Google-backed G1, the first clues were starting to appear that Android was going to be a very big deal indeed.
In the second part of our Android History series, we'll look at the impact of the T-Mobile G1 launch, the nuts and bolts of Android's open-source model and early UI designs, and the partnership with Verizon that gave us "Droid." And we'll talk to a leading executive who oversaw the arrival of the G1. Read on to find out all about Android's early days.
The T-Mobile G1 arrives
The T-Mobile G1 (or HTC Dream outside of the United States) changed everything when it comes to mobile. Like the Palm Treo, or original iPhone, without the G1 the way we do all the things we do on our smartphones would be different — and likely not nearly as good — without it.
Software, not hardware, would set the G1 apart.
Not because the G1 had great hardware, or awesome specs or things like an advanced camera or amazing screen. The hardware was chunky, mostly because of the sliding and swiveling Sidekick-esque keyboard, and the shape included a chin on the bottom that you either loved or hated. Physical buttons for Android navigation — menu, home and back — as well as answering calls and a clickable trackball were tough to get used to for many, but worked well and were a required part of navigating through Android Cupcake.
The keyboard — in 2008 most good devices still had one — was excellent for typing and had wonderful chicklet keys as well as dedicated number and function keys. Whether you were sending a text or answering an email, or hacking away at Android (the G1 was purposefully easy to bootloader unlock and root) the keyboard was excellent.
The way it was built, and the things it was built out of, were good enough in its day, but that's not what was special about the G1.
That would be the software.
The G1, being the first consumer device ever to run Android, unleashed the beast that is Google upon the face of mobile technology.
The G1 was released with little fanfare, and only in a select few 3G markets from T-Mobile in the US. Worldwide was also an odd release, with the phone being marketed and sold as the HTC Dream, with HTC having a bit more control over things than with "Google-branded" G1s. This was a forebearer of things to come with Android phones, where the open-source operating system was given away with a few rules in place for vendors who wanted access to Google's services and application store. This was also the beginning of "fragmentation," as not all models were updated to Android 1.6. Ask your friends in Canada about that one.
Only Google was best positioned to create both the operating system and the services.
While the shipping software — Android 1.0 (no delicious codename attached) — on the G1 had a bit of an incomplete feel, you could tell Google had big plans for Android. As it was, there were a few places where the software already shined when compared against the competition. Things we take for granted and everyone now includes — widgets, notification areas that slide out when you need them and more — were present and worked well. And a reliable and centralized over-the-air update system promised a way to make it all better as newer versions of the operating system rolled out. Even in in 2008, Google realized that the future of mobile and the future of the web were going to intersect in a big way.
Perhaps the most important thing, both to Google and to the consumer, was that Android promised to be a delivery method for services and apps that could be freely used and distributed. While Palm and Apple knew this, only Google was poised to both create the operating system as well as provide the services, and getting Android into as many hands as possible was a wise business decision.
"Making big bets around direction wasn't a foreign concept to us."
As for HTC, the G1 manufacturer had plenty of experience partnering with big brands leading up to its involvement with Android. As HTC America President Jason Mackenzie explains, "making big bets around direction wasn't a foreign concept to us. And it continues to be something we're comfortable with."
"We'd built a reputation as a company with a rich knowledge and experience around design [...] That also played into why Google wanted to work with HTC."
HTC Europe's Product and Services Director, Graham Wheeler, has a similar take: "[HTC] has been known as the people who do things differently and innovate and drive things forward. An engineering company that can do the unachievable and unimaginable. So when Google was looking for a partner [for the G1] I hope one of the considerations was the innovation going forward."
Jason Mackenzie: The extended interview
HTC's America President talks to Andrew Martonik about the company's design and device heritage in our 45-minute extended interview. Touching on some of HTC's most memorable devices, and the partnerships and thinking behind them, Mackenzie tracks HTC's path from a humble ODM through to the present day.
Today the green Android robot, officially "Bugdroid," is the public face of the Android brand. But that wasn't always the case. The first Android robot designs were considerably wackier, coming from Dan Morrill, then a member of the Android team involved with developer relations. As Morrill explained on Google+ in 2013: "I took a much-needed break of a couple hours and spent some quality time with Inkscape to create these... things."
"I had no eye candy for the slides we were putting together. Hence these guys."
"See, we were prepping for an internal developer launch (meaning, we were going to ask Googlers to start fooling with the APIs and give us early feedback), and I had no eye candy for the slides we were putting together. Hence these guys."
"They had a brief flurry of minor popularity amongst the team -- enough to pick up the nickname "Dandroids", anyway. But then Irina Blok (as I recall) presented her work: the bugdroid we all know and love. [...] These guys have the distinction of being the first proposed mascots for Android (that I'm aware of, at least.)"
Cupcake and Donut
A minor OS update, Android 1.1, was released for the T-Mobile G1 in February 2009. But the first major updates to Android after the initial release were versions 1.5 (Cupcake) and 1.6 (Donut). These established the trend of naming Android versions after "sweet treats," while also introducing some of the core features of modern Android as we know it today.
Cupcake paved the way for touchscreen-only Android phones.
Released in April 2009, Cupcake paved the way for touchscreen-only Android phones with a built-in on-screen keyboard, and support for third-party keyboards. The Android launcher also got a bit more useful with the first home screen widgets, while basic video recording capabilities came to the camera app.
Later that year, Donut laid the groundwork for ever greater variety in Android hardware, with support for different display resolutions and densities, and native support for CDMA networks — important for Verizon and Sprint in the United States. Android 1.6's quick search box also brought Google's mission statement of "organizing the world's information" to smartphones, with the ability to search not only the web, but contacts, music, apps and app data from one central location.
Meanwhile, the new battery usage screen allowed users to see a rough breakdown of where their power was going.
Cupcake and Donut also brought about improvements to many of the built-in Google apps like Android Market and Gmail. It's worth remembering that in the early days of Android, these were very much part of the operating system. Even minor changes to the browser, mail client or calendar app would require a firmware update, which would have to pass through Google, the manufacturer and (potentially) the carrier before being pushed out. It would take a few more years before Google could start thinking about breaking out its own apps and handling updates through the Play Store.
Donut laid the groundwork for ever more variety in Android hardware.
By the end of 2009, Android was also making advances in the areas of speech recognition and text-to-speech. Cupcake introduced the speech recognition API, while Donut included the "Pico" text-to-speech engine. These two features would eventually grow into the rich voice interactions we know in present-day Android.
The Android 1.5-1.6 era was also the beginning of manufacturers starting to customize Android, bringing their own look and feel to the base OS. And in a lot of ways Android, like Windows Mobile before it, kind of needed it. HTC introduced its Sense UI —arguably the best at the time — to make Android more user-friendly. Other OEMs followed suit — Sony Ericsson topped Android 1.6 with its own Timescape UI and Samsung developed its TouchWiz experience that continues to evolve today.
As much as Android purists deride manufacturer "skins" today, the need for manufacturer customization (and augmentation) atop Google's code was very real in the OS's earliest days.
The early visuals of Android
In contrast to iOS (and eventually Windows Phone), Android didn't adopt a strong design language of its own until relatively late into its life.
Early Android had a basic, utilitarian look to it — a visual style born out of the experimentation of numerous "milestone" builds in 2007 and 2008. Android went from having a BlackBerry-style app dock and dark status bar to a lighter, airier theme with a recognizable app drawer.
Regardless, early Android still looked and felt like an OS designed by engineers, and many of the icons and graphics used back then seemed like they were ripped from an early-2000s desktop OS. Graphics were unavoidably low-res (on account of the phone displays of the time) but they seemed rooted in the past, not the future.
For example, check out the 90s-style office phone icon, and shaded, isometric icons used elsewhere. And the liberal use of Windows-style bezels gave buttons and interactions a clunky, old-fashioned feel. iOS, by contrast, sported a skeuomorphic look in places (emulating the appearance of the physical controls the touch-only experience replaced), but there seemed to be a firmer hand on the design rudder, with a user interface that took strong cues from Apple's well-established desktop Mac OS.
Once finalized, the basic look and feel of Android didn't change much right up to version 2.2, Froyo.
What's also striking is how little the basic look and feel of stock Android changed from the first 1.0 release right up to version 2.2, Froyo — released over a year-and-a-half later. Only the later releases of Gingerbread, Honeycomb and eventually Ice Cream Sandwich, and the hiring of former Palm designer Matias Duarte, would gradually bring about an Android with design at its heart.
But that's a story for another time.
Android is well-known as an open-source operating system, meaning anyone can download the Android source code and build their own version of the OS. And the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is how that's done. Once Google is done developing Android internally, it's publicly released through AOSP, allowing anyone from big manufacturers to hobbyist developers to tinker with the code.
But of course you need some checks and balances to maintain compatibility across devices, and that's where the Android Compatibility Program comes in. In order to receive certification and get approval to use Google's suite of mobile services (including the Play Store, Google Play Services and other important stuff), manufacturers' builds of Android must pass compatibility tests. This is Google's way of ensuring that everything with access to its app marketplace is compatible with the apps on there.
AOSP also makes it also possible to use Android without any Google stuff — services, apps or compatibility checks — and that's what Amazon does with its line of "Fire" products.
While the core Android OS is open-source, much of what you might think of as Android is not.
While the core Android OS is open-source, much of what you might think of as Android is not. The Google applications bundled on most Android phones sold in the West are closed-source. And as Google has moved Android's core apps over to the Play Store, and integrated its own services with them, the open-source apps have slowly disappeared from "stock" Android devices. (For example, Music has become Play Music, and the stock Gallery app has become Google Photos.)
When it comes to Google Android however, the big OEMs do get a head-start on everyone else. Nexus manufacturers work with Google before the public release of each Android version, and thus get code ahead of time. And increasingly the same goes for the big players in the Android world without any current Nexus phones or tablets, like Samsung. As Google has opened up to developers with preview builds of upcoming Android releases (like it did with Lollipop and Marshmallow), it's also been able to share more with device makers behind the scenes. And that's an important part of tackling the problem of keeping existing devices up to date with new releases.
So what can you still do with an Android 1.x phone?
While we wax lyrical about Android Cupcake and Donut, we still need to remember that today these are deprecated and completely unsupported versions of Android. The installed applications — both from Google and other parties — still might work, but the don't have the features from the newer versions built for phones running a current version of Android. Likewise, the OS itself is very far behind the curve when it comes to features, fluidity and security.
Technically, you could still use a phone running Android Cupcake or Donut for your daily driver. The basics are in place — messaging, email and phone calls. They work, just not the way we're used to things working on a modern smartphone.
Once you go further, things turn south quickly. You have access to the original Android Market, and there are still about a dozen or so apps that will install and run. Facebook and Pandora are there, as well as some other apps you've never heard of but would install and use if you were stuck using an Android 1.5 or 1.6 phone.
Technically, you could still use a phone running Android Cupcake or Donut for your daily driver...
Contacts and calendar are completely broken. The application versions on an Android 1.x phone no longer sync with your Google account, and you can only add local contacts or calendar entries. This makes for a less-than-smart smartphone experience.
The browser is painful to use. It's slow (read: unbearably so), and incompatible with most modern web pages. Most sites I tried won't load at all, and the ones that do are usually filled with errors. Things on the web have changed quite a bit in the past five years, it seems.
The YouTube app seems more like the Windows Phone YouTube experience than a Google Android experience. The app is ugly and slow, and it takes forever and a half for a video to load. Most times, things just error out.
Surprisingly, the Amazon MP3 store (included on many Cupcake and Donut phones, including the T-Mobile G1 we're using here) works fine. The app is as fluid as can be expected on the hardware, store listings and audio previews work great, and the whole thing makes you feel like you've went back to 2010 to buy some songs.
... But chances are you wouldn't be very happy or productive.
We're not knocking the G1 or older versions of Android here. In their day, these phones running this software were the pinnacle of mobile tech. But they have been left behind, and show their age — both on the hardware front as well as on the software side.
While you could use something like the G1 running Donut as your smartphone, chances are you wouldn't be very happy or productive. Using one for a few days was fun, but what I got out of it all was a better appreciation for the great phones we have today.
Android had found some success in the US and internationally through releases from HTC, Motorola, and Samsung, but to really make a splash in the US an Android phone needed to be released on Verizon Wireless.
Getting an Android phone on Verizon in 2010 was tough. Big Red had just been burned badly by taking a chance on the Microsoft-powered Kin phone, and AT&T's relationship with Apple was pulling more people away from their network every day. A big, splashy competitor to the iPhone was a must, and nothing from the current generation of Android phones offered a compelling marketing opportunity.
Knowing how big this partnership would be for both parties, Google worked hard to create a compelling offering for Verizon. Verizon, Motorola and Google came to an agreement in October 2009, and a month later — complete with a licensing agreement with Lucasfilm — the Motorola Droid was launched in the US as the first Android 2.0 Eclair smartphone.
Verizon's marketing efforts for the Droid were almost entirely focused on attacking Apple.
Verizon's marketing efforts for the Droid were almost entirely focused on attacking Apple. The Droid Does campaign included multitasking jabs and demonstrations of the voice search capabilities, and was a spectacular success. For many users, the hardware was the best of both worlds. You could slide out a physical keyboard if you wanted it, or use Google's new virtual keyboard to do all of your typing. With a 550MHz processor and 256mb of RAM it didn't perform much better than the other Android phones on the market at the time, but its industrial design and updated UI offered a compelling overall experience.
Verizon's embrace of the Droid was also a mortal blow to Palm. A founding company in the smartphone space, Palm had launched their own modern smartphone — the Palm Pre running webOS — in June of 2009, but the first release was exclusive to Sprint. Verizon had signed an exclusive deal for the improved Palm Pre Plus, promising a large marketing campaign and sales. Behind the scenes, Verizon used Palm as leverage with Motorola and Verizon, and barely promoted the Pre Plus. With warehouses of unsold phones, Palm took huge losses and sold to HP in April 2010. HP webOS division was effectively shut down the following year under the disastrous tenure of HP CEO Léo Apotheker.
The Droid quickly became the most popular Android phone in the US. 'Droid' became synonymous with 'Android' for many, despite being a Verizon-exclusive brand. Even with the consumer-level brand confusion — to the benefit of Verizon — the Droid marked an explosion in awareness for Android.
NEXT: Android makes it big
Android's first year in public was a period of enormous growth and change in the mobile industry. Google's OS went from an outsider to a realistic competitor to the iPhone, and incumbent players like BlackBerry, Palm, and Microsoft. But it wouldn't be until 2010 that we'd really see Android take off, with multiple high-profile launches and the accumulation of serious market share.
In the next installment of our Android History series, we'll track Android's progress as it makes it big in the mobile world, with devices like the HTC EVO, HTC Desire and Samsung Galaxy Galaxy S. And we'll revisit the beginning of Google's Nexus program, which brought a "pure Google" phone to consumers, direct from their Mountain View headquarters, for the first time.
Words: Alex Dobie, Russell Holly and Jerry Hildenbrand
Jason Mackenzie interview: Andrew Martonik and Derek Kessler
Design: Derek Kessler and Jose Negron
Series Editor: Alex Dobie
Android beta screenshot credit: LR Guanzon via Wikimedia Commons