Trapped in a bean bag chair, I stretched for the phone held just beyond my reach. This was no ordinary smartphone of the day. It was the T-Mobile G1, known as the HTC Dream outside the US, the first-ever phone running Google’s new Android software. And I just had to get it in my hands.
No, it wasn’t the slide-out screen, recessed QWERTY keyboard or navigational trackball that set my fingers wagging. Instead, it was the arrangement of pixels on the 3.2-inch display that demanded my attention.
I was at that bean-bag-festooned Google developer conference in 2009, just down the street from CNET’s San Francisco office, for one reason alone. My job that day as a budding mobile app reviewer was to go hands-on with the first wave of apps to run on Android, Google’s daring new rival to Apple’s smash-hit iOS for iPhone. And lucky me – I got to see those programs before almost everyone else in the world.
The first Android “applications,” as we then called them – “apps” were still the snack you ordered before a restaurant meal – were far from the wickedly responsive, image-rich apps we take for granted today. Load time was glacial. Live demo failures were frequent. Graphics bordered on juvenile, and the entire experience harkened back to Web 1.0. Yet Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page hardly needed to strap on rollerblades to grab eyeballs during Android’s debut on Sept. 23, 2008 for us to take note.
I mean, this was Google. On a smartphone. They had our attention.
As Android prepares to mark its 15th anniversary, it’s the most widely used mobile operating system around the globe. There are more than 3 billion active Android devices (not just phones), Google told CNET in an email. Seven out of 10 phones on the planet ran Google’s phone OS as of August 2023, according to StatCounter – a staggering 70% of the world’s phone population. Android’s global majority reflects not just the staying power of Google’s mobile vision, but a seismic shift in society: The world’s more than 4.6 billion estimated smartphone owners have largely replaced standalone cameras and, in many places, personal computers. And anyone can use them.
(In the US, Android is second to iPhone, owning 46.5% of the US market in March 2023, according to Statista.)
Today, over 2.5 million Android apps populate the Google Play store, according to Statista (Google declined to share exact numbers). The rudimentary Android Market launched with about 35 apps, and the first generation of programs were clunky and underpowered compared to other smartphone programs of the day. For example, you couldn’t even change camera settings on the first Android phone.
However, it wouldn’t be long before Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS would rewrite the smartphone rules. Google just needed to harness the same revolutionary spirit as Apple, whose iPhone made a splash in 2007, and make Android a platform where mobile apps proliferated and were dead simple to use.
Google’s success was hardly accidental. Android’s once-hyped dessert-themed versions like Cupcake (Android 1.5) and Lollipop (Android 5.0, 5.1), strategic partnerships with hardware makers like Samsung and Motorola, and a drive to beat Apple in key ways – push notifications, turn-by-turn navigation, mobile payments, wireless charging – have helped create the do-everything phones most of us would feel lost without today.
Google continues to write the next chapter, too. Android developments have ushered in an era in which screens on tablet-size phones like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5 fold in half and apps can now leap and bend from one configuration to the next, even across multiple screens.
If anyone looking at the first Android apps predicted the platform’s world domination, it sure wasn’t me. I probably was too much of a n00b to have declared the withering of every healthy rival that wasn’t Android or iOS. Especially since erstwhile competitor Symbian once commanded 70% global market share. BlackBerry and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platforms were shining stars in their own right, and Palm’s WebOS revamp later bloomed into a tech media darling. In many ways, these established rivals far outstripped Android and Apple in power and sophistication.
Looking back, Google’s decision to follow Apple and peel back apps to their essence was radical given the way smartphones were going. Was that the point all along?
Context, as it’s said, is everything. Stay with me here. Let me paint you a picture.
Google’s first “phone” set the stage
The Apple iPhone? That made sense. Apple was still cultish and boutique but had built mainstream credibility popularizing the iPod, its signature portable music player. The iPhone, then, was like a bigger, better iPod that made calls, and – unheard of – you could navigate by putting your finger right on the screen. But Google was an internet search company that also sold a lot of ads. A Google phone… did that make sense?
“Someone feverishly scratched a dry-erase marker on a corporate-size whiteboard,” I wrote of a planning meeting I attended ahead of the 2008 launch. “Would it be called the Google Phone, or the G Phone?” Neither, it turned out. It wouldn’t be until eight years later, in October 2016, that the first “pure Android” Pixel phone arrived, without an extra software layer or graphics from the phone brands themselves. And Google didn’t seem to mind one bit.
Working with device makers like emerging powerhouse HTC to craft a rainbow of compatible hardware while Google supplied the Android software was key to Google’s brand of genius. So was summoning scores of third-party developers – many hungry to cash in on Android as they were starting to with Apple – to supply a fresh injection of apps running on the new platform.
That’s how I eventually found myself sinking into a bean bag in a quiet pocket of San Francisco’s Moscone Center, tapping my way through a parade of new Android apps, many of them modeled on similar versions first made for iPhone.
I recall leaving the conference with five app demos that day, my original writeups seemingly lost to a forgotten corner of the internet. One I remember was TuneIn Radio; a colleague would describe a later iOS version as “near-perfect” for its day. In the demo I saw, you could select radio stations from all over the world and see what other people were listening to on the app right at that moment.
One screen included a leaderboard of popular songs, another a world map. Part of the demo didn’t work, and I was asked, not for the last time, to lean into the description and let my imagination do the rest. The executive running the demo beamed out from the bean bag next to mine, proud of the app’s handful of options.
I remember thinking, “Cool… but is that it?”
Just like everyone else, I had a lot to learn – and unlearn, too.
“Radical” Android apps helped flip the script
Here’s what you need to know about apps in the early 2000s. The sheer simplicity of this new generation advanced by Apple and later Android was a radical notion for the time, the opposite of what everyone else was doing.
Apple and Google were “riding the horse backward,” as my late father once said of the late Steve Jobs. (Dad would know; he attended the Homebrew Computer Club of Silicon Valley at the same time as Apple co-founders Jobs and Steve Wozniak.)
As part of my personal campaign back then to become the go-to mobile app reviewer on CNET staff, I had wheedled and cajoled my hardware-reviewer colleagues to let me tinker with feature phones and smartphones like the Samsung BlackJack, Palm Treo 650, Nokia N95 and Blackberry 7100 when they weren’t using them, so I could learn and write about their apps.
I wanted to decode their secret, complex languages, like the gesture-based script called Graffiti that conducted Palm Pilots, an electronic handheld organizer (not a phone!) popular with the executive set.
In my quest, I wielded tiny stylus tools to tap the display, mashed minuscule QWERTY keyboards that had seemingly swallowed Alice’s shrinking potion, and peered into nested file systems and folders with fonts so small I had to squint at a screen mere inches from my pupils to read.
Before the iPhone and Android, handheld devices commonly mimicked full-size desktop computers. With a logic largely aimed at the besuited business professional, these early smartphones were intensely powerful, future-looking systems in their own time. They were also expensive and beckoned a rarefied clientele. Not the kind of personal device a child or mildly curious late adopter could afford – never mind immediately pick up and use.
That’s precisely what made Android and iOS so different from the “top” mobile platforms of the day. They worked because they weren’t trying to recreate anything outwardly brainy or complex. Google, for its part, understood that straightforward apps on devices that were easy to use could be life-changing by removing the friction and pain points of those (wonderfully nostalgic) mini handheld computers that came before.
With Android, you didn’t need to possess high-tech savvy or memorize precise navigational steps, or demonstrate fine motor skills as you did with previous device generations. Early Android apps didn’t necessarily feel smart. Like iPhone apps, they felt largely instinctive.
Put another way, Android was never just for computer geeks and tech nerds, but for everyone.
Android’s “one more thing”
One ingredient of Android’s special sauce was its appeal to an untapped pool of mainstream users. But, listen. Google did one more thing that Apple’s iPhone didn’t, and this is critical to Google’s particular flavor of success.
Because Google began by owning the platform and not the hardware, because it eschewed a top-to-tail ecosystem from the very beginning to work with HTC and other handset makers, it de facto embraced difference.
That meant Android could be everywhere, with just enough hardware standards for the whole thing to hang together. (Remember Android Go?) That flexibility opened the door for Android to land on devices with wildly different shapes, prices and hardware specs.
Yes, divergent pricing, hardware configurations and software versions also caused the dreaded fragmentation, a thorny topic for another day. (Backlash against the fragmentation problem also prompted 2014’s campaign “Be together. Not the same,” launched by Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, then an Android senior vice president.)
Fragmentation issues aside, whatever reasons someone had to buy one handset over another, Android phones were there with a cascade of options.
In the end, was this the answer staring me in the bean bag all along? Could it be that the kernel of Android’s wildly ubiquitous success was the audacity to let people in, wherever they were, rather than champion an elite cohort of clubby device owners? Looking back, it seems so clear to me now.
“Cool… but is that it?”
Maybe so. Or just maybe, the philosophy driving Google’s Android domination was so simple, it’s actually profound.