In Part 3 of our 8-part series on the origins and evolution of Android, we dive into the first Nexus devices, Android's first embraces of design, and the looming war with Apple.
Momentum had been building behind Android throughout its first year on the market. But it wasn't until 2010 that things really took off.
Google continued its own-branded device efforts with the forward-thinking Nexus program, but more importantly a number of high-profile Android phones from Motorola, HTC and Samsung brought a surge in device activations. Google's OS also went through three major versions, and looked to compete with the brand new iPad with the first Android-powered tablet.
In the third part of our Android History series, we'll look back on the origins of the Nexus program, some of the early device successes that fueled Android's growth in 2010, and the growing rivalry between Apple and Google. Read on to relive the year in which Android made it big.
Nexus Landing: The Google Phone Store
Christmas came a tad early for those inside Google in December 2009 — and it quickly became an open secret that, yes, Google was working on a phone. And, yes, Googlers were walking around with them. So we got several weeks of leaks and unofficial walkthroughs before the HTC-manufactured Nexus One was unveiled on Jan. 5, 2010.
The phone itself was damned near futuristic for the time.
The phone itself was damned near futuristic for the time, especially considering it came just a month or so after the blocky (but super popular) Motorola Droid on Verizon. This truly was the first sexy smartphone running Android. Basic specs included a 3.7-inch AMOLED display (at 800x480 resolution), a 1GHz Snapdragon 8250 processor, 512 megabytes of on-board storage and microSD card support. It had a 1400 mAh battery and a 5-megapixel camera. (Hey, it was 2010.)
This also was the start of the "Pure Google" experience. No manufacturer skins. No carrier bloatware. (And never mind that that's basically what you got from the Motorola Droid just weeks before.) The Nexus platform would showcase the best of Google's Android software, before it was adulterated by anyone else.
What's more was that Google was looking to revolutionize the way we purchased phones.
What's more was that Google was looking to revolutionize the way we purchased phones. Turns out it was a little ahead of its time, but the Nexus One was to be sold online only, sans-subsidy, SIM unlocked, and outside of the shackles of the U.S. carrier system.
Well, sort of. This was in the early days of proper 3G data, and the first model of Nexus One to be released was only friendly to T-Mobile's 3G frequencies. The phone would work on other carriers, sure, just not with 3G data. An AT&T-friendly model was released later, and the promised Verizon version never materialized.
And there were missteps at the start. While today we know Google as a company that's (mostly) more capable of selling actual products, the early days saw a good bit of confusion, especially regarding support of the Nexus One. When problems started to arise — and they always do — Google and HTC at first sort of pointed fingers at each other yelling "Not it!" Was it a Google Phone? Was it an HTC phone? We didn't really know, and it seems crazy to think that nobody bothered sussing that out ahead of time. Google finally got some phone support (for the phone) up and running about a month in.
Reflecting on the launch of Nexus, HTC America President Jason Mackenzie tells Android Central, "if I look back, the Nexus One was probably about five years ahead of its time. Because it wasn't just about a Google experience phone, it was really about a whole new way to bring a phone to market. You didn't go to operator shops, you didn't go to retailers to buy it. It was online. We offered customization on that to where you could have stuff engraved, and then we would overnight that phone."
Google eventually shuttered the "Phone Store" as we knew it then. (It has, of course, since resumed selling phones and tablets and other things through its own portal.) The Nexus line is currently on its seventh iteration. It's not longer just a developer device, or a phone for nerds. (OK, it's still very much both of those things, but it's also a perfectly good phone for the parents.) And while other phones have more or less adopted the "Pure Google" principle, Nexus still gets the newest features first, and provides the most flexibility for tinkering.
It is, undoubtedly, one of the longest-lasting Android experiments.
The 2015 Nexus Roundtable
Ahead of this year's Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X launch, the Android Central editors reflected on some of the highs and lows of Google's own smartphone and tablet brand. It's a series that's always represented the best of Google, though sometimes that's meant making compromises in other areas.
While the Nexus One was an important historical first for Google, the device itself never saw much commercial success. The phones that would drive Android activation numbers into the stratosphere came about through different kinds of partnerships. Two of the big hitters of 2010 belonged to HTC. Internationally, the Nexus One's close cousin the HTC Desire debuted with almost identical internals and the company's Sense UI — bolstered by a major marketing push that the Nexus never enjoyed. During this time, HTC's "quietly brilliant" handsets were the public face of Android, with the iconic Sense clock widget appearing in advertisements across Europe.
In the U.S., operators were looking for new 'hero' devices to combat the AT&T-exclusive iPhone.
In the U.S., mobile operators were looking for their own "hero" handsets to combat the AT&T-exclusive iPhone. The first and most visible was the Motorola-built Droid on Verizon. This, the first phone to run Android 2.0 Eclair, was backed by an extensive feature list (including an all-important physical keyboard) and an enormous marketing budget. And soon the slogan "Droid Does" encapsulated the idea that Android phones weren't just pretenders to the iPhone's throne, but devices that could be even more capable. The Droid brand soon spawned a lineage of handsets, including the touchscreen-centric Droid X and the HTC-made Desire lookalike the Droid Incredible.
HTC was also on hand to help Sprint build its "iPhone-killer." The EVO 4G, based on an earlier HTC design, the Windows Mobile-powered HD2, arrived in Spring 2010 with a trailblazing spec sheet. It sported an enormous (for the time) 4.3-inch WVGA display, and it was the first "4G" phone in America, with support for Sprint's new-fangled WiMAX network. That was combined with an industry-leading 8-megapixel camera and 720p video recording. And for enthusiasts, the EVO was among the first Android phones to get its 2.2 Froyo update, thanks to HTC's early access to the Froyo code though the Nexus program.
The U.S. got countless Galaxy S variants: the Captivate, the Vibrant, the Fascinate, the Epic 4G.
And last but by no means last, 2010 was the year that gave us the first Samsung Galaxy S. It wasn't the first Android-based Samsung phone, nor the first in the Galaxy series, but the original Galaxy S was the first to bring Samsung's A-game to a flagship smartphone. Samsung's SuperAMOLED technology made its debut, as did its 1GHz "Hummingbird" processor, later rebranded to the more familiar Exynos.
In the carrier-dominated U.S. market, the Galaxy S brand took a back seat to operators' own priorities, with each carrier getting its own slightly different variant. The main models were the Captivate (AT&T), Vibrant (T-Mobile), Fascinate (Verizon) and Epic 4G (Sprint), the main differences being the Epic's QWERTY keyboard and the Fascinate's Microsoft-heavy software, with Bing as the default search engine.
Alleged software and hardware similarities between the Galaxy S and the iPhone 3G would eventually land Samsung in hot water, but there's no denying the phone's place as the founding member of Android's most important series of handsets.
Nexus One revisited
The Nexus One was a revolutionary phone in a lot of ways, but it was also a landmark device for Android. And though its internals have aged and its software is no longer supported, the design and build quality of the inaugural Nexus device is a source of nostalgia to this today.
The Nexus One was Google's second collaboration with Taiwanese vendor HTC (after the G1), and this time around the partnership between the two brought more HTC influence into the end product.
"I know that there were a lot more HTC design techniques going into the Nexus device, proposing things more to Google than where the G1 was very much designed collaboratively," Graham Wheeler, HTC Europe's Director of Product Management and Service, told Android Central.
"[Google] saw this as an opportunity to drive the platform forward, to showcase the technology that could be used."
"This is my personal perception — Google obviously has its own understanding of why it wanted to collaborate with a Nexus device — they saw this as an opportunity to drive the platform forward, to showcase the technology that could be used, like the trackball, and give different paradigms."
Android and the people using it had also moved on since the G1, and consumers were more tech-savvy and comfortable with full touchscreen devices in early 2010, Wheeler says. "[Android] had matured as a platform, a lot more. You had [devices like] the HTC Hero in between and we understood [the platform], and the testers understood it. So it was a much more natural delivery."
HTC was also unique in being one of the few manufacturers creating metal smartphones — devices like the Hero, Legend, Desire and Nexus One — at a time when even the iPhone was plastic. (There's a good reason for this: metal boxes and radio signals don't easily mix.)
Peter Chou, HTC's CEO at the time, was a driving force behind the gradual stepping up of metal into the company's handsets, Wheeler explains.
"One of the things I see from Peter is an absolute obsession with how the phone feels in your hand. When we were designing the [HTC One] M8 he had a mockup in his hand for a month or two that he would just keep pulling out [and holding]."
"And I think that's why metal was one of those materials used, because it has that tactile feel. It's cooler, it's stronger, it really makes you feel like you're holding something that's designed around you."
Android on a tablet: The original Samsung Galaxy Tab
Remember the first Android tablet? No, it's not the Galaxy Tab 10.1 we saw at Google I/O 2011, or the Motorola Xoom (though these two are the choices most people would think of). It's the original 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab.
This was very much the phone version of Android ported onto a larger screen, however.
Back in September of 2010, Samsung did what Samsung does best — create a device that's different, and good enough to define a category — and released a 7-inch device that looked and felt very much like a big, giant phone. In fact, in many areas of the world, you could use the original Galaxy Tab as a phone.
The Tab launched with Android 2.2 (a custom Samsung build, of course). This is the same operating system used for phones and lacked any tablet-centric features. While it did cause a few less-than-ideal instances where apps were stretch out too far because they were designed for much smaller screens, for the most part it was well-received.
The 1024x600 display wasn't even officially supported by Android. In fact, almost everything about the OG Galaxy Tab was different from anything we were used to. But the 1GHz Hummingbird processor and PowerVR SGX540 GPU delivered, and things like HD video playback and DLNA worked well. Dieter Bohn, reporting for Android Central from the Tab's Berlin launch event, was impressed with the device, and the takeaway was that 7-inch tablets were a really good thing.
At the time, we thought the 7-inch form factor was a great place for small tablets.
History shows that they were spot on. The market for mid-sized tablets soon exploded, and many of us enjoy the smaller form factor versus a 10-inch (or larger) version.
Without the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, we probably wouldn't have products like the Nexus 7 or the iPad Mini today. Thanks, Samsung!
Eclair and Froyo
Android 2.0 Eclair continued fleshing out Android's core feature set with important (and now very much taken-for-granted) capabilities like contacts and account sync for third-party apps, SMS and MMS search support and double-tap to zoom in the browser. An updated Eclair release, Android 2.1, added animated live wallpapers (bundled on the Nexus One), and some minor behind-the-scenes changes.
The second of the three Android releases in 2010 was version 2.2 Froyo, an even more important milestone for under-the-hood stuff. Android 2.2 introduced important new features for the OS, while laying the foundations for Google Play Services — a key piece of the Google Android puzzle that would arrive two years later.
While the Android-iPhone rivalry was stronger than ever in 2010, BlackBerry was still king of the enterprise. And so Froyo made Android more business-friendly, with Microsoft Exchange support and new "device administrator" APIs for remotely wiping phones.
Android also got built-in tethering support as standard, a feature which elevated smartphones as a central hub of connectivity for travelers. Carriers would be free to wall off this feature on locked, branded phones (and that they did), but having tethering out of the box on unlocked devices was a big deal, particularly outside of the U.S.
Cloud-to-device messaging also opened up a new world of possibilities to developers, with the "Chrome to Phone" extension for sending web pages and Maps locations from the desktop to the pocket being shown onstage at the I/O 2010 conference.
Froyo was all about the under-the-hood improvements — visual changes would have to wait until Gingerbread.
Android apps also got a free performance boost thanks to the new JIT compiler, making phones noticeably quicker.
All of this fuelled the hunger for faster software updates among Android owners, something the Android of 2010 wasn't at all built for. As the first and only Nexus partner, HTC had the code in advance, and thus was able to push out Froyo for the EVO and Desire relatively quickly. For most other OEMs, work couldn't even start until after public code drop, and even then it'd have to be certified by carriers before rolling out.
It's a familiar scenario for anyone who's ever eagerly awaited a new Android update. And though things have improved in recent years, it's a weakness very much built into Android's DNA. But there was a silver lining: users running Froyo in 2012 would get new features and security updates through Google Play Services, even without a firmware update.
Flash support in the Android browser was a big deal in 2010.
Adobe Flash support in the Android browser was an important move for the web of 2010, bringing more interactive content to phones, and giving Android a big feature advantage over the iPhone in the short term. With the benefit of hindsight, however, mobile Flash turned out to be on the wrong side of history. While Flash worked reasonably well on Android — as well as could be expected given the size of phone displays and Flash being designed for mouse-driven power-hungry PCs — the open standard of HTML5 was always going to be a better cross-device option.
Taking the fight to Apple: Google I/O 2010
Google had been an early partner on the iPhone, providing key support in the form of Google Maps data, but the relationship between it and Apple soured as the two wrestled for control of the future of mobile computing. Google needed its own OS so as not to become dependent on others for its slice of mobile ad revenue. Apple, and CEO Steve Jobs in particular, saw Android as a copycat response to the iPhone.
Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs captures the Apple co-founder's fury after seeing a 2010 HTC phone — likely the Nexus One — which he believed had copied features from the iPhone.
"I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."
A direct confrontation with Google never came. Instead, Apple would wage its thermonuclear war by proxy, going after Android manufacturers like HTC and Samsung with patent claims.
The Google I/O developer conference of 2010 was another early flashpoint in the growing rivalry between the two. For the second-day keynote, Google VP Vic Gundotra took to the stage to introduce Android as an alternative to a totalitarian future under Apple and Jobs, as he paraphrased remarks by Android founder Andy Rubin.
"If Google did not act, we faced a draconian future — a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice. That's a future we don't want."
It set the tone for a presentation peppered with potshots at Apple, the iPhone and the iPad, as Gundotra set out Android's browser performance advantage, Adobe Flash capabilities, multitasking chops, built-in tethering and cloud-based app installation — all areas lacking or underdeveloped on iOS.
Though Gundotra himself had worked closely with Jobs on Google's mobile apps for the iPhone, the subtext of the I/O 2010 keynote was clear — Apple was the evil empire, closed, elitist and rooted in the cable-bound past, and Android was open, empowering, Internet-driven and forward-looking.
With that said, it's ironic that the keynote put such focus on Adobe Flash, a technology adopted from desktop computers which was eventually phased out on mobile, and is slowly disappearing from the desktop web as well.
Another historical irony: Gundotra, now a venture capitalist, regularly posts pictures to Google+ taken on his iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.
Apple in 2010: Retina and iPad
If 2010 was an important year for Android, it was even more pivotal for its biggest rival, Apple. The year started with the arrival of the much-hyped iPad, a 9.7-inch slate which seems bulky by today's lean standards, but was significantly sleeker than the Windows-based tablets of the day, which were basically entire laptops packed behind a screen.
Bringing the simplicity of iOS to a bigger screen opened the iPad up to a far wider audience than a regular computer.
Instead of trying to pack its desktop OS onto a tablet, Apple stepped its smartphone software up to a larger display, allowing it to use lower-powered internals and hit a cheaper-than-expected price point of $499. Bringing the simplicity of what was then iPhoneOS to a bigger screen also opened the iPad up to a far wider audience than a regular computer.
Apple also gave the iPhone its biggest overhaul yet with the launch of the iPhone 4 that summer. The 326ppi "Retina" display foreshadowed the era of super-dense phone, tablet and laptop displays of the present, while the glass and metal design forced just about everyone making phones — with the possible exception of HTC — to up their game. (Though the "antennagate" controversy highlighted some of the inherent challenges of making a metal phone.)
While tablets running Froyo and Gingerbread would arrive later in 2010, a full tablet version of Android, Honeycomb, wouldn't launch until twelve months after Apple's iPad announcement. Similarly, it'd take about a year for Android phones to match (and eventually surpass) the sheer density of Apple's Retina display.
By now, Android was already booming. More devices than ever before were being sold around the world, and the OS's feature set was expanding to challenge Apple among regular consumers, and BlackBerry and Windows Mobile in the enterprise. But there was a problem: Android was still kind of ugly.
The visual style of Android 2.2 Froyo was largely unchanged from the pre-release milestone builds, with 90s-style icons that looked antiquated next to offerings from Apple and Palm. There were no real design guidelines to speak of. It was cold, functional and not especially user-friendly. And so phone makers ended up adding their own software layers to plug the gaps and differentiate their products.
Duarte led the effort that brought a strong visual identity to Android, and a firmer hand on the design rudder.
A firmer hand was needed on the design rudder, and that's where Palm webOS design guru and former Danger designer Matias Duarte came in. Duarte was hired in May of 2010 (shortly after Palm was swallowed up by HP), and in the years that followed led the effort that brought a strong visual identity to Android.
The beginnings of that were seen in Android 3.0's Tron-like "holographic" UI for tablets. That eventually matured into "Holo" in Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. Holo was cleaner, darker, less overtly sci-fi and more futuristic as a result, with a recognizable blue accent.
Holo evolved over the next couple of years, losing much of what originally made it "holographic," before Duarte, as VP of Design for the whole of Google, unveiled the next stage in Google's design story, Material Design.
Gingerbread and the Nexus S
Landing in December 2010 along with the Samsung-made Nexus S, Android 2.3 Gingerbread gave the OS its biggest visual overhaul yet, while moving the platform forward with cutting-edge features like NFC (near-field communication), improved performance and better app management. In spring 2011, an updated version of Gingerbread would bring native support for front-facing cameras, a feature first popularized by the iPhone 4.
Gingerbread was the first Android release to have been influenced by newly-hired designer Matias Duarte — the man responsible for the look and feel of Palm's webOS, who would eventually rise to VP of Design for the whole of Google.
With Gingerbread almost done by the time of Duarte's arrival, his influence on that version of the OS was relatively minor. In a 2011 interview with Engadget, he revealed that the focus of Gingerbread was improving the phone experience in time for the holiday launch of the Nexus S. While Duarte had a hand in the look and feel of Gingerbread, the visual refresh that came was minor compared to the vast changes that lay ahead.
"The window of opportunity for Gingerbread was really, really narrow. So we focused on the things that made most sense to make it a great phone for the holidays."
These included "getting the text input really right, which meant working on the keyboard and starting to work on copy-and-paste and improving text selection."
"Giving it a little bit of a visual refresh, [starting] to try to bring some cohesion and some of the new design direction into the product. But the scope was really narrow."
For a long time, Gingerbread was the version of Android that just wouldn't die.
That "new design language" debuted in 2011, starting with the Android 3.0 Honeycomb release for tablets.
Unlike earlier Android versions, Gingerbread stuck around on phones for a comparatively long period of time — almost a full year. And even after ICS shipped, vendors continued to sell phones running Android 2.3. As a result, the bulk of the Android install base remained on Gingerbread for the next couple of years, and it so remained an important target for app developers.
In terms of raw hardware, the Nexus S was a solid but unspectacular phone. It stepped back to an all-plastic design compared to HTC's metal-framed Nexus One. And being based upon the Galaxy S, it packed Samsung's own Hummingbird CPU and SuperAMOLED display — a serious improvement upon the regular AMOLED of the first Nexus. Like the Nexus One, the Nexus S wasn't a huge success, but instead a technological showcase and a solid phone for developers and enthusiasts. What's more, working so closely with Google on the Nexus S likely benefited Samsung as it prepared its next flagship phone, the Galaxy S II.
NEXT: Android is Transformed
By the end of 2010, Android was a force to be reckoned with on smartphones, and the following year would see Google's OS properly branch out into tablets with the slate-centric Honeycomb release, before reuniting the phone and tablet branches in Ice Cream Sandwich, the biggest change to Android in its history thus far. With ICS came an entirely new visual style, and a stronger focus on design. And thanks to a partnership with Samsung, Android 4.0 debuted on a phone with a major technical milestone to its name.
In the next installment of our Android History series, we'll track the progress of Android through its most transformative period yet — a year which sees the rise of Samsung through major launches like the Galaxy S2 and Galaxy Note.
Words: Phil Nickinson, Alex Dobie and Jerry Hildenbrand
Design: Derek Kessler and Jose Negron
Series Editor: Alex Dobie
Steve Jobs photo credit: Steve Jurvetson on Flickr