A Brief History of Google’s Android, 12 Years Since Its Inception
The smartphone has come a long way since the first iPhone launched in 2007. While Apple’s iOS is arguably the world’s first smartphone operating system, Google’s Android is by far the most popular. Android has evolved significantly since first being released on an HTC-made T-Mobile device in 2008. Android was created in 2003 by Andy Rubin, who first started developing an OS for digital cameras. Soon, he realized that the market for digital camera operating systems perhaps wasn’t all that big, and Android, Inc. diverted its attention toward smartphones.
It wasn’t until 2005 that Google purchased Android, Inc., and while there wasn’t much info about Android at the time, many took it as a signal that Google would use the platform to enter the phone business. Eventually, Google did enter the smartphone business — but not as a hardware manufacturer. Instead, it marketed Android to other manufacturers, first catching the eye of HTC, which used the platform for the first Android phone, the HTC Dream, in 2008.
Beginning with that initial version of the operating system running on the HTC Dream, join us as we take a look at how Android has changed in the past decade.
Android 1.0 (2008)
Android 1.0 was far less developed than the operating system we know and love today, but there are still a few similarities. For example, most agreed that Android pretty much nailed how to deal with notifications, and it included the pull-down notification window that blew the notification system in iOS out of the water.
Another groundbreaking innovation in Android is the Google Play Store, which, at the time, was called the Market. While Apple beat it to the punch by launching the App Store on the iPhone a few months earlier, the fact is that together they kick-started the idea of a centralized place to get all your apps — something that’s hard to imagine not having now.
Apart from the Market, Android 1.0 also boasted the ability to use home screen widgets, a feature that iOS did not have, and one that wouldn’t be added until iOS 14 in 2020. Unfortunately, developers couldn’t create their widgets at the time. That changed in later versions. Last but not least, the first version of Android had deep integration with Gmail, a service that had already taken off at the time.
Android 1.5 Cupcake (2009)
The first significant update to Android not only got a new version number, but it was the first to use Google’s dessert-themed naming scheme, too. Cupcake was significant for many reasons, but the most important was that it was the first version of Android to have an on-screen keyboard. Before that, manufacturers had to include physical keyboards on their devices.
Next up is widgets. While earlier versions of Android supported widgets, third-party developers couldn’t create and implement then. Starting with Cupcake, Google opened the widgets SDK to third-party developers, which was a significant move. Now, many developers bundled at least one widget with their app.
Can you imagine a world without video? Before Cupcake, Android did not support video capture, so users with earlier versions of Android could only capture photos. That all (thankfully) changed with Cupcake.
Android 1.6 Donut (2009)
Android Donut gave users a pretty big update — a much more significant update than the 0.1 version number increase suggests. For example, Donut brought Android to millions of people by adding support for CDMA networks such as Verizon, Sprint, and many big networks in Asia.
Donut was targeted at making Android more user-friendly, but some of the most significant updates were under the hood. For example, Donut was the first version of Android to support different screen sizes, meaning that manufacturers could create devices with the display sizes they wanted and still run Android.
Back to user-friendliness, though. Donut was the first version of Android to include what’s now considered an Android staple — the quick search box. Users could now quickly search the web, local files, contacts, and more directly from the home screen without having to open any apps.
Donut also introduced a few aesthetic changes to Android, such as a redesigned Android Market, which offered more curation on top of free and paid apps.
Android 2.0 Eclair (2009)
While the updates to Android so far were outstanding, they were still incremental refinements of the same operating system. Around a year after Android was first released, Android 2.0 Eclair made its debut, bringing some massive changes to the operating system, many of which are still around today.
Eclair was the first device to feature Google Maps navigation, for instance, kicking off what soon became the death of the in-car GPS unit. While Maps has changed a lot since then, a few essential features showed up in the service that is still present today, such as turn-by-turn navigation and voice guidance. There were turn-by-turn navigation apps at that time, but they were expensive, meaning Google’s move to offer Maps for free was pretty disruptive.
The internet browser in Android Eclair also got revamped for the new operating system. Google added HTML5 support to the browser and the ability to play videos, putting Eclair on par with the ultimate mobile internet machine at the time — the iPhone. Last but not least was the lock screen, which got a significant refresh and allowed users to swipe to unlock — just like on the iPhone. From the lock screen, users could also change the phone’s mute mode.
Android 2.2 Froyo (2010)
Android Froyo was first released in 2010 and proved why it was an advantage to have a Nexus phone. The Nexus One, which was the first Nexus phone to be released, was also the first phone to get the Android Froyo update. Aimed more at refining the Android experience, Froyo offered users five home screen panels instead of three, and showed off a redesigned Gallery app.
There were, however, a few under-the-hood improvements. For example, Froyo was the first version of Android to bring mobile hotspot support. Users also finally got the PIN lock screen, which was perfect for those who didn’t like the pattern lock screen previously offered by Android.
Android 2.3 Gingerbread (2010)
The Nexus program was finally coming into its own, and the release of Gingerbread confirmed that. Google chose the Samsung-built Nexus S for this one. However, one phone derived from Samsung’s highly successful Galaxy S. Gingerbread was another great Android refinement, and it saw a redesign of Android’s stock widgets and home screen.
Gingerbread also came with an improved keyboard, which offered new coloration for the keys, as well as improved multitouch support, which allowed users to press multiple keys to access a secondary keyboard. Last but not least is that Gingerbread added support for the front-facing camera — what would us selfie-lovers do without that?
Android 3.0 Honeycomb (2011)
Google had been making waves in the smartphone industry for a few years now, which made Honeycomb an exciting release purely because its target was tablets. It was even first showcased on a Motorola device that would eventually become the Xoom.
Honeycomb provided a few design cues as to what would appear in future versions of Android. Instead of accenting the operating system with the classic green Android color, for example, Google switched to blue accents. On top of that, instead of having to choose home screen widgets from a simple list, where you couldn’t see what the widgets looked like, previews were offered for individual widgets. Perhaps the most significant move in Honeycomb was the fact that it removed the need for the physical button. Instead, the home, back, and menu buttons were all included in the software as virtual buttons, meaning they could be hidden or shown based on the application.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (2011)
The Nexus S was a great phone, but it wasn’t the end-all-be-all of Google’s partnership with Samsung. The two paired up once again for the release of the Galaxy Nexus, which showcased Ice Cream Sandwich, an operating system that brought many of Honeycomb’s features over to the smartphone.
The operating system brought over the aforementioned virtual buttons, as well as the tweaked and refined interface that made use of the blue highlights. Other small features, such as face unlock, data usage analysis, and new apps for mail and calendar were also included in the update.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (2012)
Android Jelly Bean signaled a new era for the operating system, even if the OS seemed more or less the same as its predecessor. If you dug a little deeper, you would have seen some significant changes. The most important of which was Google Now, which could be accessed with a quick swipe from the home screen and brought information — i.e., calendar events, emails, weather reports — all to a single display. The feature was Google’s first major stab at a digital assistant, and it laid the groundwork for future versions of digital assistants, including Google Assistant.
Apart from Google Now, several other significant additions featured in Jelly Bean such as Project Butter, designed to drastically improve Android’s touch performance by tripling buffering graphics. Said project update eliminated a lot of the stutter in Android and made it a much smoother experience overall. Refreshed font, expandable notifications, greater widget flexibility, and other features were also added in Jelly Bean, rendering it one of the most significant updates to Android at the time.
Android 4.4 KitKat (2013)
The launch of Android 4.4 KitKat coincided with the premiere of the Nexus 5, and it came with many great features. For example, KitKat represented one of the most significant aesthetic changes to the operating system to date, modernizing the look of Android. The blue accents found in Ice Cream Sandwich and Jellybean became a more refined white accent, and several redesigned Android stock apps displayed lighter color schemes.
Apart from a new look, KitKat also brought things like the “OK, Google” search command, which allowed the user to access Google Now at any time. It also brought a new phone dialer, full-screen apps, and a new Hangouts app, which offered SMS support along with support for the Hangouts messaging platform.
Android 5.0 Lollipop (2014)
Android Lollipop, which debuted alongside the Nexus 6, was the first to feature Google’s “Material Design” philosophy. The updates, however, weren’t purely aesthetic — the operating system also exhibited a few significant updates under the hood.
Google replaced the aging Dalvik VM with Android Runtime, for example, which boasted ahead-of-time compilation. Essentially, this meant that part of the processing power required for apps was supplied before said apps opened. On top of that, users saw several notification upgrades, the addition of RAW image support, and a host of other refinements.
Android 5.0 also saw the addition of another version of Android, dubbed Android TV, which brought Android to the big screen and is still in use on plenty of TVs today.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow (2015)
Android Marshmallow brought about both design changes and changes under the hood. Most notably, the app menu almost completely changed. Google used a white background instead of black, for instance, and added a search bar to help users quickly find the app they needed. Android Marshmallow also brought the addition of the memory manager, which allowed you to check the memory usage of any app used within the past 3, 6, 12, or 24 hours.
Next up were the volume controls. In Marshmallow, you got access to a more comprehensive set of volume controls, allowing you to change the volume for the device, media, and alarms. Security also got a pretty big boost within the operating system. Android officially supported fingerprint sensors beginning with Marshmallow, and permissions got a significant revamp. Instead of apps requesting all permissions upfront when downloaded, permissions were sought on an as-needed basis when they were required.
Android 7.0 Nougat (2016)
Android 7.0 Nougat arguably marked one of the most significant upgrades to Android in its ten years — primarily because of how smart the operating system got. Perhaps the largest impact on Android in Nougat was that Google Now was replaced with the now much-respected Google Assistant.
Along with Assistant, Nougat brought an improved notifications system, which tweaked how notifications looked and acted within the OS. Announcements were presented from screen to screen, and unlike previous iterations of Android, they could be grouped for easy management. Multitasking also got a boost with Nougat. Whether you’re using a phone or a tablet, you’ll be able to use split-screen mode, allowing you to use two apps at once without having to exit out of each app every few minutes.
Android 8.0 Oreo (2017)
Android Oreo took the Android platform to version 8.0, and in particular, brought a ton of multitasking features. Picture-in-picture and native split-screen both made their debuts in Android Oreo, meaning you could continue watching your favorite show on Netflix while browsing the web.
Android Oreo also gave us a whole lot more control over notifications. With Oreo, users had the ability to turn notification channels on or off, meaning they could get super granular with notifications showing up and how they appear. In particular, notification channels allowed users to sort notifications based on importance. Also notification-related, Oreo brought notification dots and the ability to snooze notifications.
A few other smaller features showed up in Oreo, too. For example, Google did away with the blob style for emojis, replacing them with emojis that were a little more in line with other platforms. Oreo also gave us auto-enable Wi-Fi, a smart text selector, and so on.
Android 9.0 Pie (2018)
Ten years after the launch of Android on smartphones, we got Android 9.0 Pie. Android Pie brought with it several visual changes that made it the most significant update to Android in a few years.
Most notably, Android 9.0 Pie did away with the three-button setup that existed in Android for years, replacing it with a single pill-shaped button and gestures for controlling things like multitasking. Android 9.0 Pie also brought some changes to notifications, including extra control over the types of notifications that show up and where they show up, as well as Google’s “Digital Wellbeing,” a feature that essentially tells you how often you use your phone, the apps that you use the most, and so on. The feature is aimed at helping users better manage their digital lives to curb smartphone addiction.
Other features include an adaptive battery, which limits how much battery background apps can use, as well as “App Actions,” which are deep-links to specific app features that show up straight from the app drawer.
Android 10 (2019)
Android 10 marked a shift for Google. You might notice that there’s no sugary name for this version of Android. That’s no mistake — along with the rollout of the latest version of Android, Google also announced a rebranding of the operating system, doing away with the naming scheme and sticking with version numbers only. Google also announced a new logo for Android and a new color scheme.
The Android navigation buttons disappeared with this new version of Android. The previous version, Android 9, still had the back button. Android 10 replaced these buttons with navigation gestures. Android 10 also brought a system-wide dark mode, which makes things a little easier on the eyes and could save battery too. Other notable changes include the fact that the theming of Android is a little more customizable.
Android 11 (2020)
The public beta for Android 11 was released in June 2020 and is available for Google Pixel 2 ranges through to the Pixel 4 range, Xiaomi Mi 10 and 10 Pro, and OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro smartphones. Some features that have garnered attention are the Device Control hub, which appears to offer smart home control toggles to effortlessly manage supported devices and easily control audio and media output via your smartphone or tablet.
Notifications have also been improved with the addition of a separate Conversation section, allowing users to screen app alerts and other messages as desired. Users can also decide whether apps need to request permission every time to access your device, ensuring that you know the program doesn’t have continual access to your data unless you decide. There have been rumors of a possible release on September 8, 2020 for Android 11. However, it’s likely that the release date will be pushed back due to the pandemic, and we might see a series of monthly beta releases that progressively introduce more features.