By Akshay Asija
For a lot of people, Android is just an operating system that Google built as a competitor to the iPhone (and iOS). While this statement is partly true, Android did not really start a move to counter Apple’s smartphone efforts. The world’s (now) most popular operating system has fairly humble origins, dating back to the founding of Android Inc. in 2003.
A brief history of Android
Today, Android powers a plethora of devices, from smartphones to IoT devices to smart bicycles. Interestingly, this is exactly the kind of thing that Andy Rubin, Rich Miner, Nick Sears, and Chris White, the founders of the Android project, had envisioned their product to do. When Google acquired Android in August 2005, Rubin described the project as having a “tremendous potential in developing smarter mobile devices that are more aware of its owner’s location and preferences“. Android was initially pitched as a smart OS for digital cameras, but it eventually morphed into a handset operating system, built to compete with the then leading mobile operating systems, Symbian and Windows Mobile. After being absorbed into Google, the Android project incorporated the Linux kernel. Over the course of 2005 and 2006, Google worked on Android as the mobile operating system for devices with QWERTY keyboards similar to BlackBerry smartphones, which were a rage at that time.
When Apple introduced the iPhone with its multi-touch screen in January 2007, Google’s Android team felt a need to rethink their product. Support for touchscreen devices was eventually added to the Android specification later that year. Google also formally announced Android in 2007, which had, until then, been a very secretive inside project. This announcement was followed by the release of a few “Milestone” builds of Android 0.5. Two such builds were internally named after robots and were called Astro Boy and Bender. These builds were released with software emulators instead of actual hardware devices; their purpose was to introduce developers to this new OS, which was still heavily inspired by BlackBerry. These builds weren’t optimized for touchscreen devices and were almost completely overhauled in the future.
Android goes commercial
Android 1.0, released on September 23, 2008, was the first commercial release of Android. The HTC Dream smartphone was released alongside Android 1.0 and became the first commercial device running the operating system. Android 1.0 brought to the table several features like Android Market, which was Google’s answer to Apple’s App Store, a web browser and support for devices with cameras. Google also packaged the mobile versions of its services like Gmail, Contacts, Calendar, Maps, YouTube, Search and Talk with this release. These applications, though basic, provided quite a lot of functionality and seamlessly synchronised with Google’s servers. Android 1.0 also introduced a system of notifications in the status bar, which continues to be Android’s strength even today. Android 1.0 received a minor update in February 2009, which fixed several bugs.
Googlers internally referred to Android releases alphabetically, using the names of popular robots, but they soon realized that there were not enough robot names for all the releases of Android. This is the reason for starting from Android 1.5 “Cupcake” in April 2009, after which all releases of the operating system have been named after a dessert. Android 1.5 added many refinements to Android, with support for animations in the user interface, home screen widgets, that allowed Google to place a search bar on the home screens of Android phones.
Cupcake was followed by Android 1.6 “Donut”, which supported devices with higher WVGA resolutions, along with more connectivity protocols. Donut also had support for more media codecs and laid the foundations of Google voice search, with speech recognition modules. October 2009 saw the release of Android 2.0 “Eclair”, which made many improvements to Android’s User Interface and added support for more camera modes. Live Wallpapers, which consist of moving objects on the home screen backgrounds, were also introduced. Till early 2010, Google worked on removing bugs from Éclair’s source code and released Android 2.1, which included minor updates.
In May 2010, Android 2.2 “Froyo” was announced, which supported push notifications and allowed the creation of mobile hotspots. It also supported Adobe Flash, which was considered a security threat even then. Froyo was followed by Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” in December 2010, which added support for sensors like gyroscopes, which gave a boost to mobile gaming, and brought along support for Near Field Communication (NFC).
Around this time, Apple had released the first iPad, which brought tablets into the spotlight. Keeping these new types of devices in mind, Google released Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” in February 2011, which was built only for tablets. Motorola’s Xoom tablet was the first device to run this release. Honeycomb did not prove to be as successful as other versions of Android, but it was the first version of Android to use Google’s Tron-inspired Holo design philosophy, which was used in all Android versions till 2014. Honeycomb also laid the groundwork for future technologies in mobile devices, such as support for multi-core mobile processors and hardware acceleration.
Nestle sweet treats and more
In October 2011, Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS)” was introduced. It was the first Android version to offer software navigation buttons on both smartphones and tablets and allow users to take screenshots. ICS was followed by Android 4.1 (and later 4.2 and 4.3) “Jelly Bean” in 2012. Jelly Bean attempted to make the Android user experience smoother by improving animations, refresh rates and rendering in general. Widget support was improved and resizable widgets were now supported. Jelly Bean was also the first Android version to natively support emoji and screensavers. September 2013 saw the release of Android 4.4 “KitKat”, named as a part of a deal between Google and Nestlé. KitKat included Android Runtime (ART) as the new, though experimental, application runtime environment along with the older Dalvik virtual machine. KitKat also made some changes to the core UI elements that had largely been the same since ICS and set the stage for the upcoming Android Lollipop.
Android 5.0 “Lollipop” was announced in June 2014 and released in November that year. Lollipop was the biggest visual change to Android in years. It was the first Google product to make use of Google’s flat, responsive design language called “material design“. Notifications were now accessible on the lock screen as well as top-of-the-display banners. Android Runtime (no longer in an experimental stage) now officially replaced Dalvik, improving application performance. Google also attempted to optimize Android’s battery consumption by making several under-the-hood changes, codenamed Project Volta. An incremental update, Android 5.1, was released in early 2015.
In May 2015, Lollipop’s successor, Android 6.0 “Marshmallow” was launched. This release, made commercially available later that year, brought native support for fingerprint readers and USB-C, two staples in modern Android smartphones. Google made further improvements to Android devices’ battery life with the Doze mode, which kills background apps when the display is turned off. Marshmallow was also the first Android release to allow users to grant permissions to the apps they installed. In March 2016, Google announced Android 7.0 “Nougat”, which was the first to support Daydream, Google’s new VR platform. It also included multi-window support, allowing users to display and interact with two apps on the screen at the same time. In October the same year, Android 7.1 was released along with Google’s Pixel phones. It primarily included cosmetic changes and supported app shortcuts, which allow users to access specific portions of an app by touching its icon for a little longer, and not opening it.
The latest major release of Android, Android 8.0 “Oreo”, was announced in March 2017. Oreo made a fundamental change to the underlying architecture of Android: Project Treble. This change modularized Android’s architecture and allows Android OEMs to release updates for their products in a more convenient and faster manner. Oreo also introduces redesigned emoji that replace Android’s divisive, blob-shaped emoji. Besides this, notifications are now divided into channels, which let users set the priority of the notifications sent by different apps. Notification dots, a new feature, also make notifications accessible through app shortcuts. Android 8.1, released in December last year, was the first to include Android Go edition, which is a special fork of the OS meant for lower-end devices with less than 1 GB of RAM.
Since 2015, Google has shifted to a yearly update cycle for Android. A new version of the OS is announced in the first quarter of the year, giving developers the time to work on it before it is finally released later in the year. This means that the search giant will probably announce the next version of Android, codenamed P, in a matter of weeks. While little is known about this release, reports by several analysts have revealed that Google is working on adding support for devices with iPhone X-like notched displays. There would also be a provision for notifying users if their calls are being recorded. Google is also going to provide security improvements in this release, by preventing background apps from accessing the camera or microphone of the device. Support for a new form of biometric authentication, Iris scanners, is also said to be in the pipeline.
The biggest question about Android P, however, is what sweet delicacy Google is going to name it after. Some sources feel that Android Pie is going to be Google’s choice, based on the changes Google recently made to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). Others think that Google may choose to name it Pineapple, marking a change in its nomenclature. Whatever be the case, one thing is certain: Android P is only going to heat up the war between iOS and Android, making it still harder to choose one.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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