Android has been around for quite some time, and there is an endless array of apps and developments for the platform. It's interesting to look back at things and to understand exactly where the mobile OS came from and where it might be going.
And there is a lot to go over. Android has had 11 major versions over the year thus far (with more to follow), and even more if you consider mid-version patches and changes. Devices and other apps and programs have developed along with it, many of which have rich histories of their own. If you were to look at the first Android device and the most recent, you might be mistaken in thinking they were completely different operating systems, minus the common apps.
While we cannot go into every changelog and the reasoning behind every tweak to the system, we can provide some general information and a basic history that should drive your curiosity and give you a better understanding of Android's history.
Before Android was known to the public, Android Inc. was founded by Andy Rubin, Chris White, Nick Sears, and Rich Miner in 2003 in Palo Alto, California. It existed for a few years, but funding was difficult for the company. Google eventually bought it in 2005 for $50 million (a worthwhile investment, as it turned out). A key decision during this time was the choice to use Linux as the foundation for the OS and the overall focus on smartphone technology.
As development continued and Google moved the project along, they started to talk with and negotiate with phone manufacturers such as HTC and Motorola. They were hoping to compete with the dominant Apple at the time. Development continued under Google (with the founders working under the company) until the beta version 1.0 came out in November of 2007.
The first Android version was released to the public in 2008 and lacked most of the features we know for today. However, it is easily paired and integrated with apps such as YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, etc. The first phone to use Android was the T-Mobile G1, otherwise known as the HTC Dream. While the device itself got mixed reviews at best, the OS would continue to integrate Google's other products and create an app store, the Android Market.
After the first version, there were plenty of other major updates, with most of them getting a dessert-based codename. They are generally released yearly, with additional patches and versions released as needed. What is interesting about updates and development, in general, is that Android, with its massive range of potential hardware and devices, is not easy to develop. There is a constant balance that comes with development, and while it is universally accessible, it seems like only a tech giant such as Google could make the OS thrive as it does today.
To give you a better idea of Android's evolution since 2008, here are the major versions and some notes on each of them:
Version 1.5, named cupcake, was a big leap for the OS and introduced many features and frameworks that people love today. Rotating displays, the ability to quickly and easily upload videos to YouTube, and third-party keyboard support all came with Cupcake. Text prediction and an internal dictionary were also included (though perhaps not as advanced as what we have today), copy and paste features in the web browser, and plenty more. It was released on April 27, 2009.
Only some months later, on September 15, 2009, developers released the next step named Donut. While not as significant as some of the other updates here, Donut improved camera and camcorder integration with phones, allowing for quick phone access for those easy-to-miss shots. It also introduced the Power Control widget allowing for speedier access to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth management, among other things.
General improvements included changes to the Android Market (it was easier to view screenshots in the market), improved search features across the board, and some technical support that affected VPNs and CDMA/EVDO.
Versions 2.0 and 2.1 (2.1 was mostly just slight adjustments and bug fixes), released just a month and a half after Donut, brought in the text to speech support as well as live wallpapers. It also increased the contacts page's functionality, allowing people to text or call someone just by tapping their picture. Android's dictionary and virtual keyboard were also improved, and they added some new camera features for good measure.
Version 2.0 was also the first version to have multiple account support and Google Maps navigation, both huge steps forward for the OS. There were also plenty of more minor changes, some of which grew into major or necessary features for apps or future versions.
Version 2.2, otherwise known as Froyo, was released in May of 2010. The release boasted speed improvements and lots of technical support. Bluetooth functionality was expanded, and there were more options for Wi-Fi mobile hotspots and more. Adobe Flash support was added, which would affect the internet for some years to come, and there were plenty of other smaller support features as well.
Another primary focus was security through PIN/Password protection and additional security updates through patches down the line.
Gingerbread was a smaller update but is still noteworthy. It added multiple camera support (think of the standard selfie camera on your phone now) and updated the user interface, optimizing it for speed and simplicity. There came a new download manager, improvements for game developers, and additional support for sensors and audio effects. It was released before the last versions of Froyo, leading to some overlap.
The other significant update here was support for Near Field Communication (NFC), which allowed Android phones to read NFC tags. This technology had limited use back then, but now it is used in contactless payments, bootstrapping connections, and identity confirmation.
Not a standard update, Honeycomb (released on February 22, 2011) was meant chiefly for tablets and larger devices, allowing for these devices' interfaces to better fit within the Android framework. It might have been a quick response to the iPad, or it might have been in development for some time when tablets were coming into play.
Yet Honeycomb also brought in more support for multi-core processors, the ability to encrypt all user data, and the use of browser tabs on tablets. Larger screens also got an improved keyboard and a system and action bar.
Many of the developments were brought over to phones in 4.0, making this an indirectly important update.
The last version to support the flash player but a major update by any measure, Ice Cream Sandwich, released in 2011, integrated many of the Honeycomb features to smartphones. There was Wi-Fi direct support, automatic Chrome browser favorites syncing, improved voice integration, and plenty of improvements to individual apps within the OS.
Ice Cream Sandwich also incorporated a favorites tray onto the home screen of devices and allowed users to unlock the lock screen with a picture of their face (biometric verification vastly improved as time went on). People with stricter data plans might be interested to know that Ice Cream Sandwich introduced the Data Usage section in settings you might use today.
Jelly Bean, or Android versions 4.1-4.3, did not add too much in terms of new functions or features but is noteworthy for its improved user interface. Android added more notification features and action buttons with this update. Animations on the OS became smoother and faster, making touch controls feel much more responsive and easy to use. While perhaps not immediately noticeable, anyone trying to go back today would notice the difference.
Other firsts include multichannel audio, expandable notifications, and other accessibility features for users. Jelly Bean was released first in June 2012, with updates released in October 2012 and July 2013.
Android version 4.5, nicknamed KitKat, was the first code name to use a trademarked name. KitKat was an update that mainly consisted of optimization. With this update, the OS was optimized to run on systems with only 512MB of RAM (not much when it came out in September of 2013, and certainly not much now).
With KitKat, we also saw the introduction of Google Hangouts to the OS and the ability to keep various messages together in the same app. On a minor note, emojis became available on Google Keyboard. There is not much else worth mentioning aside from different color schemes and small feature tweaks.
Android 5.0, which came out on November 12, 2014, and was nicknamed Lollipop, was a significant visual change in the OS. Using Google's Material Design language, 5.0 focused on using more shadows and lighting changes to give Android a more paper-like effect. On top of this were some UI changes and the usual tweaks that come with every Android update.
On the back end, Android added support for multiple SIM cards in version 5.1. Additionally, HD voice calls and a device lock protection policy that kept thieves out of stolen devices were introduced.
The next update, Marshmallow, came out on October 5, 2015. Marshmallow included a new app drawer, easier access to Google Now, biometric fingerprint unlocking support, USB Type-C, support, Android Pay (you may know it today as Google Pay), and a few other tweaks and improvements.
Some of the other introductions were the ability to put apps on standby, a 4K display mode for various apps, and the changing of app permissions to be granted individually at run time.
Android 7.0, codenamed Nougat and released on August 22, 2017, introduced simple but useful features, including the ability to zoom in on the screen and an emergency information section. Quick settings were expanded, and the addition of a data saver mode helped users with a limited data plan. Concurrently, developers added a doze functionality to aid with battery life, as phones were (and are) getting larger and using more power for their bigger screens.
Nougat supported bigger screens in other ways too. Multitasking was improved as more apps were opened at the same time. Additionally, users could switch between apps more quickly, and a split-screen mode increased the functionality of devices with larger screens.
It is also important to note that at this point, Google made its own foray into the hardware market with the Pixel and Pixel XL, which are lines that continue to this day.
Operating under the codename of the famous cookie, a lot of work was done in this update to the settings panel. With plenty of visual changes, there was also work done to notifications and Android's overall autofill framework. Other noticeable changes included a faster boot time (up to twice as fast on some devices), adaptive icons, quick settings, and improvements to notifications (different channels, dots, notification snoozing, and a few other minor changes). There was also picture-in-picture mode which was great for video calls which were increasing in popularity at the time, and some security improvements as well.
On the hardware side of things, Project Treble was a considerable change to Android. It used a modular architecture, making it far easier for hardware manufacturers to get Android updates to phones. This made updating phones much more straightforward and set the path for further updates and developments down the line. Oreo was released on August 21, 2017.
Moving into even more recent history is Pie, or Android version 9.0. Pie introduced some of the UI changes that we know about today, including the main home button that returns you to the main screen instead of some of the past navigation buttons. Did you know, if you hold down the home button, you can swipe left to bring up recently used apps or right to scroll through open apps?
Pie also took the battery saving of the last update one step further by utilizing machine learning to determine which apps you will use now versus later, leading to improved battery life. It also added a feature that lets you put your phone in do not disturb mode by placing the screen down on a flat surface.
On top of this, there were a few UI redesigns and app updates as usual, and improved messaging notifications. It was released on August 6, 2018.
At Android 10, Google dropped the sweet naming convention it had used thus far. Sometimes known as Android Q, this update was released on September 3, 2019, and brought in support for foldable phones (still not used often but an important development) as well as a system-wide dark mode for those who like to sleep at night. Sharing was improved, and so was the reply system for messaging apps.
Android 10 also started introducing some more options related to app privacy and permissions for apps in response to increasing cyber threats and increasing public concern.
Android 11 brought in a lot more features that tend to work behind the scenes as compared to other versions. The version, released on February 19, 2020, focused a lot more on privacy options for users and restricting apps so that they do not invade your privacy. For example, apps can no longer see what other apps you have installed and are more limited to local storage access. Unused apps will also have permissions revoked, so changed or updated apps cannot access information without your consent.
Android 11 also tried to improve notifications, mainly system notifications. It is also improving 5G support, which is being rolled out over cities across the world and will likely be available over wider areas in the coming year. Android 11 also added a screen recorder and some additional tweaks and features.
If you are a longtime Android user, you might notice the bubbles on your screen when using other apps, allowing you to reply to messages more quickly. This is an Android 11 improvement, and it has been mostly well-received. It improved multitasking and streamlined messaging for a great many users.
Yet what does Android look like today? The most recent version of the OS was released on October 19, 2021, launching alongside new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro phones. It might not be on all devices yet, but eventually, the rollout will occur fully, and we can expect to see most new Android devices running it, following the trends of the past.
Notably, Android 12 brought a huge update to the Widget system, which was something longed for by users for some time now. Additionally, with the update, we saw the usual performance and security upgrades where possible.
Yet the biggest change most users will experience is the updated Material Design Standard for Android, known as Material You. This allows for a greater amount of style customization and is a huge leap in design for Android phones (and beyond, if reports are to be believed). As some of the main features are on limited devices so far, we will have to see the true impact Material You makes on the smartphone industry.
Eventually, we can expect Android 13 in 2022, though we do not have too much data on this yet. What you can expect are the usual advancements in the UI, incremental updates, and security and privacy features.
Running in parallel to all the information you are reading here is another story that is just as interesting: the development and changes in the app store, run by Google. While it deserves its own article to go over its history, here are a few facts, events, and developments that you should know about:
As stated, Android is going to be around for quite a while. There will be further developments, changes, and changes to the general world that affect our relationship with technology. Google is working on such projects as self-driving cars, internet balloons, delivery drones, and some environmental technologies. Should they come to fruition, how these technologies interact with Android will matter greatly, and there is always the opportunity for a programming or design breakthrough.
There will still be updates to many of the previously stated goals, but how those developments will come about is yet to be seen. Progress is inevitable, but inevitable can mean one year or five years or longer down the line. We suspect that change will come about as a combination of consumer demand and opportunity.
Most people have an Android smartphone of some sort and will continue to do so in the coming years. Android will continue to adapt to users' needs as time goes on, based on what people want and what is available in terms of hardware. There is so much more to learn about the platform and connected apps, but we hope that you have learned a little bit more about this important OS and Google in general.