Before Google’s Android Ruled the World, It Had to Get Radical. I Had a Front-Row Seat

Trapped in a bean bag chair, I stretched for the telephone held simply past my attain. This was no peculiar smartphone of the day. It was the T-Cell G1, often known as the HTC Dream outdoors the US, the first-ever telephone operating Google’s new Android software program. And I simply needed to get it in my arms.

No, it wasn’t the slide-out display screen, recessed QWERTY keyboard or navigational trackball that set my fingers wagging. As a substitute, it was the association of pixels on the three.2-inch show that demanded my consideration.

I used to be at that bean-bag-festooned Google developer convention in 2009, simply down the road from CNET’s San Francisco workplace, for one purpose alone. My job that day as a budding cell app reviewer was to go hands-on with the primary wave of apps to run on Android, Google’s daring new rival to Apple’s smash-hit iOS for iPhone. And fortunate me – I bought to see these packages earlier than virtually everybody else on this planet.

The primary Android “functions,” as we then referred to as them – “apps” had been nonetheless the snack you ordered earlier than a restaurant meal – had been removed from the wickedly responsive, image-rich apps we take with no consideration in the present day. Load time was glacial. Dwell demo failures had been frequent. Graphics bordered on juvenile, and the whole expertise harkened again to Net 1.0. But Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Web page hardly wanted to strap on rollerblades to seize eyeballs throughout Android’s debut on Sept. 23, 2008 for us to take notice.

I imply, this was Google. On a smartphone. They’d our consideration. 

As Android prepares to mark its fifteenth anniversary, it is essentially the most extensively used cell working system across the globe. There are greater than 3 billion energetic Android gadgets (not simply telephones), Google instructed CNET in an electronic mail. Seven out of 10 telephones on the planet ran Google’s telephone OS as of August 2023, in line with StatCounter – a staggering 70% of the world’s telephone inhabitants. Android’s world majority displays not simply the endurance of Google’s cell imaginative and prescient, however a seismic shift in society: The world’s greater than 4.6 billion estimated smartphone homeowners have largely changed standalone cameras and, in lots of locations, private computer systems. And anybody can use them.

(Within the US, Android is second to iPhone, proudly owning 46.5% of the US market in March 2023, in line with Statista.)

In the present day, over 2.5 million Android apps populate the Google Play retailer, in line with Statista (Google declined to share precise numbers). The rudimentary Android Market launched with about 35 apps, and the primary era of packages had been clunky and underpowered in comparison with different smartphone packages of the day. For instance, you could not even change digital camera settings on the primary Android telephone. 

Nonetheless, it would not be lengthy earlier than Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS would rewrite the smartphone guidelines. Google simply wanted to harness the identical revolutionary spirit as Apple, whose iPhone made a splash in 2007, and make Android a platform the place cell apps proliferated and had been lifeless easy to make use of.

Google’s success was hardly unintended. Android’s once-hyped dessert-themed variations like Cupcake (Android 1.5) and Lollipop (Android 5.0, 5.1), strategic partnerships with {hardware} makers like Samsung and Motorola, and a drive to beat Apple in key methods – push notifications, turn-by-turn navigation, cell funds, wi-fi charging – have helped create the do-everything telephones most of us would really feel misplaced with out in the present day.

Google continues to write down the following chapter, too. Android developments have ushered in an period through which screens on tablet-size telephones just like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5 fold in half and apps can now leap and bend from one configuration to the following, even throughout a number of screens.

If anybody trying on the first Android apps predicted the platform’s world domination, it positive wasn’t me. I most likely was an excessive amount of of a n00b to have declared the withering of each wholesome rival that wasn’t Android or iOS. Particularly since erstwhile competitor Symbian as soon as commanded 70% world market share. BlackBerry and Microsoft’s Home windows Cell platforms had been shining stars in their very own proper, and Palm’s WebOS revamp later bloomed right into a tech media darling. In some ways, these established rivals far outstripped Android and Apple in energy and class.

Trying again, Google’s resolution to observe Apple and peel again apps to their essence was radical given the best way smartphones had been going. Was that the purpose all alongside? 

Context, because it’s stated, is every thing. Stick with me right here. Let me paint you an image. 

Google’s first “telephone” set the stage

The Apple iPhone? That made sense. Apple was nonetheless cultish and boutique however had constructed mainstream credibility popularizing the iPod, its signature moveable music participant. The iPhone, then, was like a larger, higher iPod that made calls, and – remarkable – you would navigate by placing your finger proper on the display screen. However Google was an web search firm that additionally offered lots of adverts. A Google telephone… did that make sense?

“Somebody feverishly scratched a dry-erase marker on a corporate-size whiteboard,” I wrote of a planning assembly I attended forward of the 2008 launch. “Wouldn’t it be referred to as the Google Telephone, or the G Telephone?” Neither, it turned out. It would not be till eight years later, in October 2016, that the primary “pure Android” Pixel telephone arrived, with out an additional software program layer or graphics from the telephone manufacturers themselves. And Google did not appear to thoughts one bit.

T-Mobile G1 1st Android phone

HTC was a frequent Google accomplice within the early Android days. The T-Cell G1/HTC Dream had a singular design that was typically irritating to make use of.

James Martin/CNET

Working with machine makers like rising powerhouse HTC to craft a rainbow of appropriate {hardware} whereas Google provided the Android software program was key to Google’s model of genius. So was summoning scores of third-party builders – many hungry to money in on Android as they had been beginning to with Apple – to provide a recent injection of apps operating on the brand new platform.

That is how I finally discovered myself sinking right into a bean bag in a quiet pocket of San Francisco’s Moscone Middle, tapping my means by way of a parade of recent Android apps, lots of them modeled on comparable variations first made for iPhone.

I recall leaving the convention with 5 app demos that day, my unique writeups seemingly misplaced to a forgotten nook of the web. One I bear in mind was TuneIn Radio; a colleague would describe a later iOS model as “near-perfect” for its day. Within the demo I noticed, you would choose radio stations from all around the world and see what different folks had been listening to on the app proper at that second. 

One display screen included a leaderboard of well-liked songs, one other a world map. A part of the demo did not work, and I used to be requested, not for the final time, to lean into the outline and let my creativeness do the remaining. The manager operating the demo beamed out from the bean bag subsequent to mine, pleased with the app’s handful of choices.

I bear in mind pondering, “Cool… however is that it?”

Similar to everybody else, I had quite a bit to be taught – and unlearn, too.

“Radical” Android apps helped flip the script

Here is what you must learn about apps within the early 2000s. The sheer simplicity of this new era superior by Apple and later Android was a radical notion for the time, the alternative of what everybody else was doing.

Apple and Google had been “driving the horse backward,” as my late father as soon as stated of the late Steve Jobs. (Dad would know; he attended the Homebrew Pc Membership of Silicon Valley similtaneously Apple co-founders Jobs and Steve Wozniak.) 

T-mobile G1 HTC Android phone

The Android Market initially launched with round 35 apps. Then, builders created apps in droves. 

James Martin/CNET

As a part of my private marketing campaign again then to change into the go-to cell app reviewer on CNET employees, I had wheedled and cajoled my hardware-reviewer colleagues to let me tinker with characteristic telephones and smartphones just like the Samsung BlackJack, Palm Treo 650, Nokia N95 and Blackberry 7100 once they weren’t utilizing them, so I might be taught and write about their apps. 

I wished to decode their secret, complicated languages, just like the gesture-based script referred to as Graffiti that performed Palm Pilots, an digital handheld organizer (not a telephone!) well-liked with the manager set.

In my quest, I wielded tiny stylus instruments to faucet the show, mashed minuscule QWERTY keyboards that had seemingly swallowed Alice’s shrinking potion, and peered into nested file methods and folders with fonts so small I needed to squint at a display screen mere inches from my pupils to learn.

Earlier than the iPhone and Android, handheld gadgets generally mimicked full-size desktop computer systems. With a logic largely aimed on the besuited enterprise skilled, these early smartphones had been intensely highly effective, future-looking methods in their very own time. They had been additionally costly and beckoned a rarefied clientele. Not the type of private machine a toddler or mildly curious late adopter might afford – by no means thoughts instantly choose up and use. 

That is exactly what made Android and iOS so completely different from the “high” cell platforms of the day. They labored as a result of they weren’t attempting to recreate something outwardly brainy or complicated. Google, for its half, understood that easy apps on gadgets that had been straightforward to make use of might be life-changing by eradicating the friction and ache factors of these (splendidly nostalgic) mini handheld computer systems that got here earlier than. 

With Android, you did not must possess high-tech savvy or memorize exact navigational steps, or display high-quality motor expertise as you probably did with earlier machine generations. Early Android apps did not essentially really feel good. Like iPhone apps, they felt largely instinctive.

Put one other means, Android was by no means only for laptop geeks and tech nerds, however for everybody. 

Android’s “yet one more factor”

One ingredient of Android’s particular sauce was its enchantment to an untapped pool of mainstream customers. However, hear. Google did yet one more factor that Apple’s iPhone did not, and that is essential to Google’s specific taste of success. 

As a result of Google started by proudly owning the platform and never the {hardware}, as a result of it eschewed a top-to-tail ecosystem from the very starting to work with HTC and different handset makers, it de facto embraced distinction.

Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro

Google will formally reveal the brand new Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Professional on Oct. 4, 2023.


That meant Android might be all over the place, with simply sufficient {hardware} requirements for the entire thing to hold collectively. (Keep in mind Android Go?) That flexibility opened the door for Android to land on gadgets with wildly completely different shapes, costs and {hardware} specs.

Sure, divergent pricing, {hardware} configurations and software program variations additionally triggered the dreaded fragmentation, a thorny matter for one other day. (Backlash in opposition to the fragmentation downside additionally prompted 2014’s marketing campaign “Be collectively. Not the identical,” launched by Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, then an Android senior vice chairman.)

Fragmentation points apart, no matter causes somebody had to purchase one handset over one other, Android telephones had been there with a cascade of choices.

Ultimately, was this the reply staring me within the bean bag all alongside? May or not it’s that the kernel of Android’s wildly ubiquitous success was the audacity to let folks in, wherever they had been, slightly than champion an elite cohort of clubby machine homeowners? Trying again, it appears so clear to me now.

“Cool… however is that it?”

Possibly so. Or simply perhaps, the philosophy driving Google’s Android domination was so easy, it is really profound.

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