Apple may have the brand cachet, but Google has the sheer firepower. In just four short years, Google’s Android mobile platform has overtaken the global smartphone market. The first Android-powered phone, the T-Mobile G1, launched on Sept. 23, 2008. It landed more than a year after the first iPhone—and a few months after Apple introduced the App Store and made the iPhone a proper smartphone.
It’s always fun to look back and see how much the tech world has changed. But even as recently as 2008, when Android first hit the scene, most consumers still had regular cell phones instead of smartphones, Palm OS was still a contender, Research In Motion was on a BlackBerry Curve-fueled and Pearl-fueled upswing, and there was no such thing as an iPad. Mobile apps had yet to enter the public consciousness. Most phones were either 2G or 3G, not many had GPS yet, and any touch screen phone that wasn’t an iPhone needed a stylus.
The G1 wasn’t an amazing piece of hardware, either. Its 384MHz processor was relatively slow even for the time, and it looked like a slightly ungainly and unfinished T-Mobile Sidekick, with its oversize, slide-out QWERTY keyboard and thick, slanted chin. The OS itself was pretty barren, and looked like a Linux install without any customizations. Still, it had a glass capacitive touch screen and a WebKit browser like the iPhone, and you could heavily customize the home screen. As a result, the G1 still felt more capable than the stylus-based and non-touch smartphones of the day. Our reviewer Sascha Segan called the G1 “a basic introduction to what could be a blockbuster mobile platform.”
Enter the Motorola Droid
Sascha was right, of course, but it wasn’t immediately obvious at the time. After the G1 came out, we only saw a few other Android handsets appear over the course of the next 12 months, leading us to wonder if the platform was ever going to make it for real. Then came the Motorola Droid—the first high-profile Android handset to hit Verizon, complete with a tremendous “Droid Does” marketing campaign and a signature “Droiiid” sound for when new email arrived. It helped that it was also a fast phone and came with free voice navigation, the first handset ever to do so.
The Droid in fact did it for Android; for the first time, mainstream consumers began to wonder if they should get an iPhone or a Droid. From there, Android popularity surged—and the rest is history. 2010 saw the first Samsung Galaxy S handsets, while the start of 2011 brought the first 4G LTE devices running Android, more than a year and a half ahead of Apple. Screen sizes began to expand further and further. Google tried and failed to sell its own Nexus handset, only to resurrect the name in a series of purist phones across multiple manufacturers, culminating in the current Samsung Galaxy Nexus lineup.
Then there are the Android tablets. Most weren’t success stories, and many were downright terrible. But we’ve seen some bright spots recently, including the Kindle Fire HD, the versatile Galaxy Note 10.1, and my personal favorite, the Google Nexus 7, with its smooth, fast performance, bright display, and $200 price tag. We’ve even seen the debut of “phablets,” devices that straddle the line between phones and tablets, with screens in the low 5-inch range.
Two of the newest Android phones—the LG Optimus G and the Samsung Galaxy Note II—feature quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon and Samsung Exynos processors, respectively. Even on regular smartphones, screen sizes are pushing up against the 5-inch mark. And we’re beginning to moving away from pure spec regurgitating, and into genuinely new capabilities like live zoom during mirrored video playback and on-the-fly photo filtering apps.
On Top, With Some Stumbles
Today, Android sits on the top of the platform heap in smartphone sales, beating its nearest rival (iOS) by roughly two to one in the U.S, and with Samsung far and away the sales leader. Android phones are great choices for consumers, for enterprises, for accessing the cloud, for enthusiasts hacking emulators and installing rogue OS builds—you name it and there’s a market for it. The latest OS, Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean,” rivals iOS in its smoothness and sophistication and beats it on customization options, if not in outright usability, and it’s finally beginning to appear on a few devices, too.
To be sure, the OS has taken some hits lately—most notably in Samsung’s massive loss to Apple during last month’s patent trial, one of the largest and most significant the tech industry has seen in more than a decade. The trick going forward will be for phone vendors to differentiate their devices and software builds, while simultaneously steering clear of existing UI patents and not completely alienating Android purists in the process. It’s a balancing act.
In addition, Android may have finally lost some of its inherent advantages over iOS with the introduction of the iPhone 5 last week, such as 4G LTE support, free voice navigation, and (to a limited extent) support for larger screen sizes. Finally, while Google Play is now stuffed with over half a million third-party apps, nearly all of them are for phones; there’s still a distinct lack of tablet-specific apps compared with the iPad.
These hurdles can all be overcome, though. There exists a vibrant and thriving Android enthusiast and developer community, plus more choice and fewer restrictions than you’ll ever see on Apple’s side. It’s been good to have you around, Android; here’s to faster performance, even cooler devices, and hopefully, fewer lawsuits in the months and years to come.