In a sea of flip phones and full keyboard BlackBerrys, a single decision by Google laid waste to the competition. That determination also put Google’s Android mobile operating system on an enduring collision course with Apple’s iPhone.
As Android, a small California software company that Google had recently purchased, was tinkering away, Apple announced the iPhone. That monumental January 2007 reveal upended traditional conceptions of what a mobile internet-enabled device could be. Instead of trying to cram the trappings of a computer into a tiny screen, with small menus, physical keyboards and styli, Apple designed a screen-only device better suited to our fingers.
It was a wakeup call for Google.
“If Google did not act, we faced … a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice,” said then-Google exec Vic Gundotra at the company’s 2010 I/O conference, relaying the thoughts of Android founder Andy Rubin. “That’s a future we don’t want.”
To shape that future to its liking, Google took a radical step: It made Android completely free and open source, available for any company to use and create devices around.
Which brings us to where we are today: a global market for mobile phones split between Apple and its Android rivals, most notably Samsung but also a handful of other brands, including Google’s own Pixel phones. Google’s bet on open-sourcing Android has paid off handsomely. The search giant’s $50 million purchase in 2005 led to $47.9 billion in Play Store app revenue in 2022 alone, according to Statista. Since the debut of the first Android phone in September 2008, Android has become the world’s most popular mobile operating system, with 3.3 billion users worldwide, about 41% of the global population.
Along the way, it’s had to wrangle with its diverse stable of Android hardware partners and rivals – a challenge that Apple doesn’t face – while pushing the pace on what smartphones can do. That includes folding in ever newer capabilities, like those based on the hottest technology of today, artificial intelligence.
“Android has come a long way in the last 15 years,” said Sameer Samat, general manager and vice president of the Android ecosystem. “Now with the advances in AI, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink the user experience on smartphones.”
Samat is one of four people I spoke with who’ve been with Android since the beginning, to reminisce about the last decade and a half and also discuss what the future might hold.
Starting out – and starting over
In the early going, Google was aiming to create an OS that could compete with the likes of Windows Mobile. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO at the time, later said, “We were very concerned that Microsoft’s mobile strategy would be successful.”
That meant creating a device with a full keyboard and a small-ish screen, with a central array of navigation buttons. The idea of an all-touchscreen phone was completely out of sight.
Everything changed on Jan. 9, 2007, when Apple unveiled the iPhone.
“As a consumer I was blown away. I wanted one immediately,” said Google engineer Chris DeSalvo in the 2013 book, Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution. “But as a Google engineer, I thought, ‘We’re going to have to start over.'”
It was one thing to make a compelling operating system. Google also had to extend the reach of its OS across the world. To do that, Google took a page out of Microsoft’s playbook, working with hardware partners to create devices with Android baked in. Unlike Microsoft, however, Google opted not to charge a licensing fee and instead gave away its operating system. Google aimed to make money by baking search and other services into Android, selling ads against people’s search habits. Google would also take a cut of sales from apps sold on its Play Store.
“One of the most important decisions made in the early days of Android was to make the project open source,” said Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior vice president of platforms and ecosystems at Google and one of the founding members of Android.
Open source is a collaborative approach to software development in which the copyright holder allows users and other third parties to modify and distribute its software, often for free. Popular pieces of open source software include Linux, Blender and VLC Media Player.
A company like Samsung couldn’t make its own iOS device, as the software was Apple’s property. Samsung had the option to continue working on its own operating system, trying to court app developers, but that was a tall order. Instead, it decided to go all-in on Android (with a few Windows Phone devices in the mix). Dominant players like BlackBerry saw market share drop dramatically, going from 20% in 2009 to near zero by 2016. Nokia, which created the Symbian OS, eventually made a deal with Microsoft to exclusively ship Windows Phones, before being bought outright by the software giant (and eventually sold off). It was either Android or bust, and the mobile industry chose Android.
With Google not charging a licensing fee as Microsoft does with Windows, manufacturers had a no-cost buy-in. It also meant that companies like Samsung could sell devices without having to send off a check to Google. This approach allowed Android to spread quickly, catapulting it to a spot as the most popular mobile operating system in the world.
By 2019, Microsoft, the company Google feared the most when it started developing Android, had exited the mobile space entirely, opting instead to create software for iOS and Android.
Apple vs. Android
The mobile market today is dominated by two operating systems: Android and Apple’s iOS. That’s made for an intriguing dynamic with two distinctly different vibes. Where Apple likes a tightly controlled ecosystem and pushes elegance in design, Google has shifted from its hackers-like edgy aesthetic, found in Verizon’s Motorola Droid from 2009, to a cleaner style pushing individuality and customization. But that’s Google’s design language for its Pixel line of devices. Hardware partners like Samsung, OnePlus and Nothing all have their own take on Android.
It’s allowed Apple to have one clear and singular marketing message, whereas Android is juggling multiple ones, including from some manufacturers pushing value over extravagance.
Apple pitches the iPhone as an aspirational product, a marker of increased wealth or a greater sense of fashion. One way Apple cultivates this is by having a strict policy on allowing only good characters in television or film to use its products, as director Rian Johnson revealed regarding his 2019 murder-mystery movie Knives Out.
And Apple’s marketing has been working, with the iPhone overtaking Android devices in key markets like the US and Japan in the last few years. Teens in the US are all in on the iPhone. On YouTube, the iPhone 15 reveal from September currently sits at 30 million views, whereas the Pixel 8 reveal from a few weeks later has 1.1 million. (The Galaxy S23 reveal from January, with a nine-month head start, is sitting at 21 million views.)
Marketing has become a bigger part of Google’s push: Witness its recent campaign of TV commercials playing up key features of its Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, including AI. The most dramatic change in phone design in years – foldable phones like the Samsung Galaxy Flip 5 – is happening in the Android sector.
It’s worth noting, too, that Apple might not have achieved its cool status without the help of Android. Many features first came to Android before finding their way onto the iPhone.
“There are so many innovations that have launched on Android first, from pull-down notifications, home screen widgets and computational photography to supporting hardware advancements like fingerprint sensors and 5G,” said Dave Burke, vice president of engineering at Android. “Oh, and not to forget USB-C.”
AI and Android
Android has always been a complex endeavor. Given that the software needs to scale on everything from phones to cars, Google has had to work closely with developers, giving them the tools to make apps that can work across many devices.
These tools include things like Jetpack Compose, enabling developers to create better-looking apps with cleaner code; high-level APIs to make camera and biometric code simpler; and Device Streaming so developers can test their apps remotely across a wide range of Android devices. Now AI is even helping Android developers, with Studio Bot for learning, coding and testing.
AI is one of the ways in which Google continues to differentiate its Pixel line of devices from other Android phones and the iPhone. This includes extending the power of computational photography to incorporate AI to fill in pixels that weren’t there before. Or using AI to screen spam calls or stay on hold with customer service. Fun tools include using AI to make custom wallpapers.
With really just the two competitors providing mobile operating systems, Android will likely remain the dominant phone platform across the world. There are still developing markets that rely on cheaper Android devices, a market Apple isn’t looking to compete in. And with its massive AI investment over the years, and its continuance in integrating machine learning into Android, Google is hoping the conveniences people see will keep them from jumping to Apple.
Says Dan Sandler, Android’s engineering director: “From status bar notifications, to systemwide navigation gestures, to the ‘Binder’ IPC system that connects all Android applications to the underlying OS, Android is all the best ideas we’ve ever had.”