Ten years. It's an impossibly long time in the tech space, and it's similarly impossible to highlight all of the major events and stories that shaped the world during the period. So we're not going to do that.
Instead, we're going to highlight a few of what we think are the biggest Google and Android-related stories from each year in this decade, starting with 2010.
We're not pretending this is every story pertaining to Android and Google. Not even close. These were the ones our editors considered the most interesting, the most dynamic, the most controversial. These were the ones we remembered.
Nexus One The Google Phone
On January 5, 2010 Google made the Nexus One available. It came with a handful of hardware "firsts" in the Android world, such as a 1GHz Snapdragon chip and a 4-conductor headphone jack that allowed inline media control, but the real story was that it was the Google phone.
Like every Nexus that followed, this was both a blessing and a curse. For users, it meant that Google was free to shape Android however it liked, and offer timely updates. It also meant that sales were abysmal because there was no marketing to speak of.
But still, if you bought into the Nexus program through the Nexus One, you'll have fond memories of a glowing (multi-color even!) trackball and an often buggy experience that was pure Android. It was something you could love and hate at the same time.
Built by HTC, the leader of Android at the time, it still stands out as one of the most industrially beautiful phones ever made — even with the trackball.
Android gains traction DROOOIIIIIDDDD
2010 was also the year Android started its rise to the top of every global market share list. This was a direct result of what Google didn't do when it came to Android — tell manufacturers and carriers what they had to do.
Call it bloatware or even spyware, but the way companies like Samsung and Verizon were able to take what Google had made and shape it into a vehicle for their own services meant that Android was more important than the competition for them.
2010 was the year everyone learned was Android was — through the Droid brand.
Apple would never allow Verizon to pre-install its own messaging app or license a name like the iDroid. Verizon still wanted to sell the iPhone because of how it flew off the shelves, but the ability to turn Android into something of its own meant it was worth putting time and money into marketing.
Once Samsung entered the ring with the original Galaxy S, which was custom-tailored for every carrier in North America and Western Europe, there was no going back. Android would be king of the hill when it came to sales because the companies selling wanted it to be.
The Cr-48 Chrome Notebook program begins The Chromebook is born
Android wasn't the only operating system Google was working on prior to 2010, and in December of 2010, it started giving away Chromium-48 Notebooks to "Test Pilots" in return for regular feedback.
The Cr-48 looked like a normal Windows laptop with a rubberized coating, but a closer look at the keyboard let you know it was something very different. The function keys were gone, replaced by a set of dedicated Chrome shortcut keys and CAPS LOCK was now a search key mapped to — you guessed it — Google.com.
The Cr-48 was never meant for retail sales, thus the name which is an unstable isotope of Chromium, but 60,000 people did end up testing the idea of a Chromebook; a connected appliance that only looked like a laptop.
Oracle vs. Google The Java Wars begin
On August 13, 2010, Oracle sued Google for copyright and patent infringement in the District Court for the Northern District of California. Oracle claimed that Google had knowingly developed Android without a Java license and copied the Java APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). The company claimed that Google violated its copyright on seven prior patents and sought both monetary damages and a cease and desist of google using the materials.
The issue was compounded by the fact that Google had hired developers who originally worked on Java as it was being developed by Sun Microsystems before Oracle purchased it. Oracle insisted that there was no way Google could be unaware that it infringed.
The Google-Oracle lawsuit was the beginning of a decade of legal tumult for the Android maker, though Google never paid anything out.
Google's defense was that using the code and the documentation of the APIs fell under fair-use clauses, where a company must allow anyone to use a thing or product that was essential and allowed the interoperability for which Java was designed.
Initially, both parties were found to be right. The court did find that Google had infringed on 37 separate APIs that fell under the copyrights in question, but also found that Java APIs should have never been able to be copyrighted in the first place. Both parties settled for a zero dollar amount exchange.
Of course, the battle over software APIs and Oracle v Google wasn't over and still isn't today. The case has been to several appeals courts and in 2019 Google successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge rulings a second time.
This is and was an important case for the entire tech industry, as it will determine whether APIs — the things that allow software to work with itself or other software — are copyrightable. Should the Supreme Court find that APIs do fall under blanket copyright protection, all the software we use today will be subject to similar lawsuits.
Android 2.3 Gingerbread and the Nexus S
Late 2010 brought us the Nexus S and Android 2.3 Gingerbread. The Nexus S was built by Samsung but has a small difference compared to the Galaxy S it was modeled after — "open" hardware. This means that Google was allowed and able to rewrite code that kept it viable for development long after the consumer version had come and gone, which helped make sure Android versions could run well on cheaper and older hardware.
Gingerbread itself looked a little different with its new home screen and a usable Download Manager app, but under the hood, it was a very important upgrade.
Better touch support meant a better typing experience, support for multiple cameras, audio enhancement support allowed for apps like equalizers and bass boosters to function, and NFC inclusion made for an interesting few years where outside hardware could interact with the phone.
Gingerbread offers a pretty poor experience compared to the Android we have today, but in its time it was the first version that could compete functionally with iOS or Windows Mobile. The new changes for developers also meant that the Play Store (then known as the Android Market) would grow and grow.
Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the Motorola Xoom and 'real' Android tablets
Google's 2011 was defined by its entry into the tablet space. Seeing Apple's success with the iPad, Google jumped into action to start making Android tablet-friendly — up to this point, Android was distinctly a "phone" operating system, even though some companies had shoehorned it onto small tablets. Google clearly got to work quickly: Android 3.0 Honeycomb was shown off in January, debuting a brand new interface that was made specifically for tablets. Honeycomb was made for big landscape screens, including a new home screen design, fresh navigation bar layout, notification and settings screens, and most importantly, frameworks for app developers to take advantage of the extra space.
Honeycomb was about more than just tablets — it was a complete rethinking of the design of Android.
But Honeycomb was about more than just tablets. It was a complete rethinking of the design language of Android, introducing a new "holographic" redesign. The interface was flat and angular, with an emphasis on blacks, dark greys, transparency and neon-like bright blue highlights. A departure from Android 2.3 Gingerbread, for certain, and one that really grabbed everyone's attention.
Things started off rocky, with Honeycomb launching on the Motorola Xoom in late February. The software was, frankly, unfinished — and we all knew it. Third-party app support was understandably lacking, considering this was Google's first-ever tablet interface, but the operating system itself was generally less stable than Gingerbread and early users dealt with regular app crashes and other problems. It stands to reason, then, that Google quickly followed up the first release with an update to Android 3.1 to address the problems.
Google had a strong set of initial partners, but Android tablets just … never took off.
Google had a strong set of initial partners to launch Android tablets, of course starting with the Motorola Xoom but also the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, LG G-Slate, Toshiba Thrive, Acer Iconia A500 and more. In the same year, we got a second wave, with two Motorola Droid Xyboards, multiple ASUS tablets, the Sony Tablet P and Tablet S, and new sizes of Samsung and Acer's tablets. Looking back now, the tablets seem downright silly in terms of size, but this was a whole new era for Android's expansion to large form factors.
It could easily be argued that Google's first attempt at tablets, and a tablet-focused OS, was a failure — and it was clear even in the first year. Its inability to get Android app developers to support large wide-screen landscape tablets was a constant issue, even with months of development time and a relatively robust market of Android tablets available. Even many of Google's own apps were glacially slow to update with tablet support. That was compounded when Google released its own tablet, the Nexus 7, in 2012 with a 7-inch display and portrait orientation that frankly just worked like a large phone. It wouldn't make another push into large landscape tablets until the Nexus 10 at the end of 2012.
First LTE-powered Android, the HTC Thunderbolt on Verizon
Amid all of this focus on tablets, we hit a major milestone: the first LTE-powered Android, the HTC Thunderbolt on Verizon. The phone itself wasn't particularly exciting, as it was effectively a small refresh of the HTC Evo 4G that launched with support for Sprint's WiMAX network — but the introduction of a proper 4G LTE network to an Android phone was amazing after the debacle that was the Wimax launch.
The first LTE phones were loaded with compromises, but it felt like the future.
We were blown away by LTE speeds on the Verizon network, which are tiny by today's standards: roughly 8 Mbps on the download and upload. But our first taste of LTE showed us the future: phones with big screens and more processing power to take advantage of being able to have media and apps served up in a fraction of the time we were used to. You got a rear camera that could capture 8MP stills and 720P video, a huge (for the time) 4.3-inch display and a super-loud speaker with a kickstand to prop up the phone for viewing.
It also introduced us to the reality of being the first ones to use a next-generation network: the hardware and battery were not ready to handle the extra LTE radio. The Thunderbolt would die in a matter of 4-5 hours of use in an LTE area, and there was quickly a robust market of third-party batteries to give you an extra 200-400mAh so you could try and make it through a day. The first LTE phones were truly compromised, but we didn't care — this was the future, in our hands now.
Google+ becomes the social glue for all of Google
In an attempt to ride the wave of making seemingly everything on the internet a "social" experience, Google launched its social network platform Google+. It was a bit of a combination of ideas from around the social world, with elements of traditional blog platforms, but also new services like Facebook and Twitter, plus location check-ins like Foursquare, and then also integration of text and video chats.
Google tried to do too much at once with Google+, but it helped unify all of its services with one social framework.
Needless to say, Google tried to do a lot at once with Google+. In the first year, Google+ changed a ton — features came and went quickly, and there were radical changes to the website and Android app. Google also quickly pushed Google+ tendrils into seemingly every possible nook of its business, turning G+ into the glue that connected all of its other services. All while it was, ostensibly, a social network for people from around the world to meet and exchange ideas.
Understandably, Google+ was populated early on by a more tech-savvy, and Android-focused, user base. It was an incredible place to keep up with Android news, exchange tips and tricks, and learn all about what people were doing with their phones and tablets. From this perspective, Google+ launched at a perfect time, when Android was at mass adoption levels and filled with interesting products.
Samsung launches the first Galaxy Note
November 2011 brought us the original Samsung Galaxy Note, which we only fully understand the importance of today. Coming just six months after the positively huge HTC Thunderbolt, the Galaxy Note took everyone by surprise with a display that was a full inch larger at 5.3-inches. It was massive, and it was a gamble for Samsung, which following the release of the Galaxy S II hadn't necessarily cemented its spot in the Android world yet.
Samsung completely detached the Note from what we considered a 'normal' smartphone.
Completely detaching from what we considered a "normal" smartphone size opened up tons of possibilities for Samsung. It had better specs than anything else out there, plus a huge battery that offered over a day of use. It also reintroduced the idea of a smartphone with a stylus, which brought many of us back to the good old days of Windows Phone and Palm devices. This was very much the start of the "let's try it all" era for Samsung, and it really went all-out on the first Note.
Samsung really can take credit for launching the big smartphone craze with the original Galaxy Note, even though it may have been a little ahead of its time. Even though people generally considered the Galaxy Note a niche device that was too big for anyone to comfortably use or fit in their pocket, Samsung soldiered on, releasing Notes for years while the rest of the market caught up — and now, phones all follow the big-screen formula.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich debuts with the Galaxy Nexus
Android 3.0 Honeycomb may have been mostly a failure in terms of bringing Android tablets to the mass market, but it did bring something useful to the fold: the design underpinnings we saw in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. After seeing dozens of tablets launch with Honeycomb software that looked dramatically different from the Gingerbread-based phones on the market, we got our first look at Android 4.0 on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus at a very odd launch event in Japan.
ICS set the groundwork for Android's design all the way to Lollipop.
Matias Duarte, the eccentric designer credited with leading Google into this new futuristic design, showed off this new software that was a massive change from Android 2.3. ICS was a departure from Gingerbread in all the right ways. It was faster, simpler, cleaner and felt decidedly modern. Gone were the skeuomorphic interface elements that mimicked real-world objects, replaced with a flat interface built on thin lines and high-contrast colors.
Like other Nexuses before it, the Galaxy Nexus itself wasn't nearly as important as the software. Samsung had already partnered with Google to make the Nexus S, and the Galaxy Nexus was very clearly built on the Galaxy SII platform. Still, the combination of that sleek and modern Galaxy Nexus hardware along with the total change to the look and feel of Android made for a change that felt like a massive step forward for Android. Jelly Bean, KitKat and even Lollipop could very easily trace their design roots back to the changes introduced in ICS.
Google acquires Motorola for $12.5 billion
Though the announcement itself came in August 2011, it wasn't until February of 2012 that Google's $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility was approved by the US Department of Justice and European Commission.
The prospect was pretty simple: despite already working with third-party manufacturers on the Nexus program, Google wanted to be in the phone business. The idea was to operate Motorola as a separate business entirely from Android, trying to compete with Samsung and HTC, which at the time were the two most powerful Android makers in the business.
Google's work with Motorola bore fruit fairly quickly, emerging with the now-classic Moto X and Moto G smartphones in mid-2013. But despite superb feature sets and plenty of advantages over competing products, Motorola phones never sold particularly well, and Google divested itself of the phone maker — well, the hardware business anyway. The patents remained — in 2014, selling to Lenovo for one-sixth of the price it paid two years earlier.
Everybody kept suing each other
Though the first lawsuits were filed in 2011, Apple and Samsung's tete-a-tete really took off the following year, when a verdict was reached, awarding Apple $1.049 billion for infringing five of its design patents. Sales of some then-discontinued Samsung smartphones were blocked due to an injunction, but the fight would continue through appeals. Eventually, the trial was thrown out due to a jury problem and the retrial continued through appeals until 2018, when Apple was ultimately awarded $539, just over half of the original amount.
While 2011 and 2012 were the busiest of the bunch, the decade saw litigation throughout, with Apple and Samsung at the center of much of it. At its core, the litigation was about companies trying to retain value from their patent portfolios, choosing to fight over scraps instead of cooperating.
If 2010 was the start of Google's legal troubles, 2012 was the year of everyone else's, including and especially Samsung.
In 2013, a group of companies under the Rockstar Consortium umbrella, which included Apple and Microsoft, sued Google, Huawei, Samsung, HTC, LG, ZTE and others to attempt to eke value from a set of patents the group had acquired from Nortel in 2011. The lawsuits alleged that Google and its smartphone partners violated a number of patents in the Rockstar portfolio, mostly pertaining to how Android communicates with mobile networks. Google countersued in 2014 and the two sides reached a settlement shortly thereafter.
It almost seems odd to think of companies like Apple, Samsung and Google suing one another over patent violations in late 2019, but that was very much the reality in the early part of the 2010s. And while those days are unlikely ever to return — Apple and Samsung publicly stated they would no longer pursue legal recourse for design patents — they definitely painted an adversarial and uncomfortable light for those first few years of this closing decade.
The Galaxy S3 changed Android phones forever
Just how important was the Galaxy S3 for Samsung, and for the Android world? Well, it changed everything. It was a massive design leap forward for the Korean company, which had been accused of mimicking Apple's hardware and software design until that point. It stretched the phone's screen to a then-massive 4.8 inches, and added a number of features that, a few months later, would become mainstream for the industry.
Chief among them was the introduction of a high-resolution 720p Super AMOLED display, though it was made up of PenTile subpixels that didn't stand up too well under scrutiny. It also had 2GB of RAM, another relatively new spec at the time, along with up to 64GB of storage and, in some models, LTE support — which the 2,100mAh battery handled with aplomb.
You probably still remember the Galaxy S3's whistle notification — and you probably still hate it. That's a legacy.
More important than the hardware, though, was the software. Shipping with Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, the Galaxy S3 introduced the famous — or rather infamous — TouchWIZ skin, which included "nature" sounds like the awful whistle notification and, worse, the 'bloop' water droplet.
The Galaxy S3 heralded the era of overstuffing, where Samsung took as many features as possible and threw them at the user to see what stuck (it would get even worse with the Galaxy S4 in 2013). S Voice, S Beam, Smart Stay, Pop-up Play — I could go on. During this time, Samsung took the "more is better" approach, which contrasted comically with the understated and performant (but considerably less popular) HTC One X and its Sense UI.
Perhaps the most impressive stat of all? The Galaxy S3 was insanely popular, going on to sale over 70 million units and becoming one of the fastest-selling and most popular phones of all time. With a massive worldwide marketing campaign, it would go on to overshadow every Android phone released in 2012 by a wide margin, and would set the stage for Samsung's eventual market dominance later in the decade.
The Nexus 7 may have been the last great Android tablet
Was the Nexus 7 the last great Android tablet? It seems quaint now, but the ASUS-built Nexus 7, when it debuted in mid-2012, was a very big deal. It was the first popular tablet that ran Android, not Amazon's fork of it, and encouraged developers to build apps for the burgeoning platform, newly united for both phones and tablets on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
The Nexus 7 was popular for a number of reasons: it was small, which meant it was portable — much bigger than phones of the time, but still easy to slip in a small bag or purse — and, at $200, relatively cheap. It was also accessible, offering a very familiar and easy-to-use Android experience that didn't feel like too much of a departure from the Nexus phones people were used to at the time. But unlike many of the existing Android tablets released throughout 2011 and 2012, the Nexus 7 didn't feel clunky or encumbered by skins; it just flew through whatever you needed it to.
The tablet also marked a new stage in Google's collaboration with NVIDIA, launching the Nexus 7 with the then-new Tegra 3 chip. NVIDIA's reign on Android phones and tablets would be short-lived — the chips just weren't very efficient, and caused some performance glitches in apps and games — but the partnership would bear fruit a few years later with the Shield TV, which used a next-gen Tegra X1.
The Nexus 7 would also get a second run at life, with a refreshed 2013 model, also built by ASUS. By then, the iPad Mini was available and Apple was running away with the tablet market and mindshare, but for a little while, it was pretty good to own an Android tablet — especially if it was a Nexus 7.
The Nexus 4 divided a nerd nation, but introduced HDR+
I still remember seeing the Nexus 4 for the first time, glinting in the light from its dotted rear glass. It was a beautiful phone, made even more attractive by the fact that it was only $299 when it debuted.
Google's Nexus program would really cohere into something great with the Nexus 5 in 2013, but the Nexus 4 showed glimpses of that greatness. The phone lacked LTE, a spec that many say destined it for the garbage dump of history, but it also saved its battery from the garbage, too, which at the time was an easy trade-off to make.
The Nexus 4 was beautiful, fragile, and the end of an era.
And while its camera wasn't great in most situations, either, it did introduce a feature we're still benefiting from today: HDR+. The Nexus 4's camera sensor was pretty bad, so Google had to figure out a way to eke high-quality photos from mediocre hardware, and the Nexus 4's software processing was determined to be the solution. It didn't always work, and it would be four or so years until a Google-branded phone would claim the camera crown, but we saw the first inklings of that promise with the Nexus 4.
Google Glass actually gets into user and developer hands
While Google Glass technically debuted in 2012 when Sergey Brin skydived into Google I/O while wearing one, 2013 was when Google Glass opened up to developers and the Google Glass Explorers contest let us all dream up our fantastical uses for the future specs that put a tiny HUD display over your right eye.
If Google liked your entry, you could be an elite Explorer and have the honor of paying $1,500 — plus flight and hotel for a trip to New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco — for a product that had very unique potential, but also a lot of bugs to work out, such as the dreaded foil problem, limited app compatibility, and public concerns over distracted users and privacy.
Google Glass is still kicking around in the Enterprise space, where Google unveiled a Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2 earlier this year. For regular consumers, though Google Glass was pretty much left to die on the vine, with a small but dedicated group holding on as long as they could before having to move on to Focals by North and other smart glasses.
Google acquires Waze on the road to dominating maps
Waze, the crowdsourced maps and navigation app, is without a doubt one of the buyouts Google made in this decade that were complete no-brainers, as Waze's crowdsourced slowdowns and alerts about accidents, speed traps, and other hazards was something that Google Maps had sorely needed for years. Buying Waze was a little like buying YouTube: it gave Google a great app that could enhance its own service and Google gave it the backing and search prowess of the biggest search engine in the world.
It didn't take long to see some of those perks manifest in the Google Maps app — and for Google's own search and StreetView optimizations to migrate to Waze — but even six years later we still don't quite have feature parity between the two. That's perfectly fine because Waze remains Google Maps best alternative, and it continues to thrive along a parallel path from Google Maps.
Google convinces manufacturers to clean up their act with Google Play Edition phones
Announced at Google I/O 2013, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition ditched TouchWiz for a cleaner stock build of Jellybean. This was the first of a small series of phones that showed much promise, but ultimately floundered. Google Play editions of phones like the Galaxy S4 and HTC One gave us a look at how some of the most popular phones on the market would behave with Google building and updating the software instead of the manufacturers themselves. In other words, Google Play Editions gave us top-of-the-line phones with actual consistent updates.
It was a fun experiment, and one I firmly believe was a necessary step on Google's way to the Android One program, which now helps users find phones with consistent software updates without spending flagship-tier money.
Google Play Editions were kept up to date almost as well as the Nexus line, but since they received no real marketing, barely anyone knew they existed since they were sold exclusively on the Google Play Store.
Motorola's first phones under Google, Moto X and Moto G, change the industry (for better or worse)
When you look at phones that really shook things up over the last ten years, you absolutely cannot have that discussion without Motorola's 2013 lineup, specifically the original Moto X. From the customized, Texas-assembled Motomaker system to the first instances of features that are now part of every Android phone, the Moto X was a game-changing phone, and it was actually the phone that made me an Android nerd.
The first true product of Motorola under Google's direction, the Moto X had innovative features both big and small, from Touchless Controls — the always-listening precursor to Google Now and Google Assistant — to Trusted Bluetooth, which eventually morphed into Smart Lock. Despite its mid-range spec sheet, the Moto X proved to be a dependable phone that soared above its relatively modest price tag.
The Moto G that came a few months later might not have been quite as stunning as the Moto X, but for a phone under $200, it was a game-changer in its own right, redefining the budget phone market in ways that are still visible today, especially when it comes to crafting a phone for users in the developing world.
Google steps out of its comfort zone with the $1300 Chromebook Pixel
While early Chromebooks had all been budget machines, the Chromebook Pixel was the first to push the premium envelope and show what Chrome OS could do — and what Google could do — with a premium laptop. Beautifully designed with an anodized aluminum and a big, beautiful 3:2 touchscreen, the Chromebook Pixel was proof that done right, a Chromebook is a laptop to love.
Granted, the Chromebook Pixel started at $1,300 and battery wasn't even half of what we tolerate on a Chromebook today, but it was a big deal at the time and that 3:2 screen was a gem, eventually being used in a number of laptops, tablets, and detachables.
The HTC One gives us big pixels (and an aluminum body)
It may seem trivial and almost cute now to talk about cameras with big pixels and phones with aluminum bodies as if those things are not standard on nearly every phone today, but back in 2013, HTC was a pioneer in both of those fields.
The HTC One, known later as the One M7, was the peak of the Taiwanese company's design and engineering prowess, releasing a phone as beautiful as it was ambitious. Both front and back, there were reasons to be intrigued: the screen was incredible, among the best of its time, and the rear camera traded megapixels for pixel size, giving us a glimpse of the low-light-friendly future that computational photography would allow.
The Nexus 5 brings LTE to the Nexus line for just $350
It was hard to beat the beauty of the glass-backed Nexus 4, but the Nexus 5 was more durable, more capable, and didn't have nearly as many compromises for its price tag. This was the first Nexus phone to have LTE, and it had "OK Google" functionality, though not quite on the Moto X's level.
Sure, the battery life was semi-average — proof that Google's battery woes go back much further than the four years we've seen with the Pixel line — and the camera was kind of weird, but this was a solid phone for $350. It was the kind of phone that could work great for regular users as well as enthusiasts obsessed with having the latest features.
The Chromecast brings the beginning of Google's streaming dominance
This was one of the bigger surprises out of Google I/O 2013 and it was a product that evolved and endures to this day: the Google Chromecast. While it only supported seven apps at launch, that number quickly grew, and its ability to turn an old 'dumb' TV into a smart TV without having to worry about keeping another remote around or log into your services on yet another device was refreshing.
The Google Cast protocol that the Chromecast operates on expanded to speakers, audio-video receivers, Android TV consoles and even to a lot of TVs these days since manufacturers can add Chromecast built-in to their devices without jumping through too many hoops, and no matter which Chromecast device you're using, the interface is the same on them all.
While the current Chromecasts look nothing like the oversized thumb drive dongles launched in 2013, the original Chromecast has help up remarkably well. There's still two alive and kicking in my parents' house right now, tough as the day we bought them for $35.
The first Android Wear smartwatches were released
Google made its foray into wearables with Android Wear, a lightweight version of Android designed for low-powered hardware like smartwatches. Google partnered with Samsung, LG, Motorola, and ASUS, and the first wave of smartwatches started rolling out in the latter half of 2014.
The LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live were the first Android Wear smartwatches to make their way to customers, but it was the Moto 360 that dominated the headlines. Motorola's smartwatch stood out from the pack because of the round design and the quality of materials — it came with a Horween Leather band — and it also had a better charging mechanism.
Even though the Moto 360 had a flat tire at the bottom of the display for the ambient light sensor, it didn't affect sales. Of course, a huge reason for the success of Android Wear was down to the software: instead of just mirroring notifications from your phone, you could download standalone apps to run on your wrist. The UI itself was designed to be easy to navigate via swipe gestures, and Google surfaced Google Now-style cards for things like alerts, notifications, and more. Sure, Android Wear had its share of issues early on, but it was full of potential.
OnePlus One debuts, math puns ensue
OnePlus burst onto the scene in 2014 with the OnePlus One, and it made every smartphone manufacturer stand up and take notice. OnePlus somehow managed to cram the latest internal hardware into a phone that cost just $299, and in doing so it set the tone for the value segment.
A quick refresh of the hardware: the OnePlus One featured a 5.5-inch 1080p display, Snapdragon 801 chipset, 3GB of RAM, 16/64GB of storage, 13MP camera at the back, 5MP front shooter, and a 3100mAh battery. OnePlus teamed up with Cyangeon to offer a custom version of CyanogenMod 11 out of the box. Initial availability was so limited that OnePlus had an invite system in place: you could only get the device if you had an invite code.
The OnePlus One wasn't a great phone on its own, but its legacy has been felt louder than any other in recent years.
The OnePlus One was a landmark device in the context of Android hardware, because it showed everyone that there was a viable option to "true" flagships. Sure, there were other Chinese manufacturers that were rolling out similarly-priced phones with high-end hardware, but what made OnePlus stand out was the software. The fact that you could get CyanogenMod out of the box and have the ability to tinker with other custom ROMs was a huge deal at the time, and while OnePlus moved software efforts in-house for later models, its partnership with Cyanogen set the foundation for OxygenOS.
Five years later, OnePlus continues to dominate in this category, and while its designs and software have drastically evolved, its value-oriented approach holds true to this day. If you're in the mood for some nostalgia, our OnePlus One review is worth a revisit:
Google Cardboard makes VR accessible
Virtual reality has seen a resurgence over the course of the decade, but high pricing remains a barrier to entry. Google sought to fix that with Cardboard, a fold-out VR viewer and software platform that lets anyone access VR content. It was an ingenious idea: you could order a Cardboard VR viewer from Google for $15, assemble it, slot in your phone at the front, and launch a compatible Cardboard app.
Because the hardware itself was just a fold-out cardboard with plastic lenses, you could just build one yourself by following the instructions. What made Google Cardboard stand out was the software platform: Google worked with devs to tailor apps for the Cardboard platform, reducing barrel distortion and creating a stereoscopic effect for full 360-degree immersion.
Based on the app, you could use your phone's motion sensor to navigate or a dedicated control knob on the Cardboard viewer. The ease of use combined with the sheer affordability allowed Google to sell over 10 million Cardboard VR headsets, and you can get your hands on one today for just $15.
Lollipop debuts: it's a Material world after all
Android 5.0 Lollipop was introduced in October 2014, and it became one of Google's biggest platform releases. Lollipop ushered in the era of Material Design, unifying Google's design language across phones, wearables, TVs, and the web. Until that point, Google's design teams worked in silos, with Gmail on the web featuring a vastly different look to the Android app. All that changed with Material Design, with Google finally rolling out a cohesive look for all of its services.
Lollipop offered a boatload of new features, including actionable lock screen notifications, quick settings toggles, battery saver mode, Smart Lock for seamlessly unlocking your phone with a trusted device, guest mode, screen pinning, low-latency audio, "OK Google" hotword detection, and much more.
Google leveraged Material Design to great effect on Android, overhauling the user interface with fresh colors and a more modern aesthetic. While there have been several visual tweaks over the last five years, the same design language is used on Android to this day.
Android TV makes smart TVs suck less
In addition to a wearable OS and a visual overhaul of Android, Google rolled out Android TV in 2014. Android TV introduced a better way to navigate the smart TV interface, with Google controlling the entire user experience. That meant that TV makers could not add their own customization options, making it a bloat-free platform.
Unlike other smart TV platforms, Android TV has a minimal interface, with a focus on discovery. The ability to install apps from the Play Store allowed it to stand out, and with Google Cast integration, it was seamless to cast content from your phone or tablet to the TV. Google also baked Assistant integration into Android TV a few years ago, making it easy to find your favorite shows and movies with a voice search.
Google teamed up with the likes of Sony, Sharp, Vizio, Hisense, and Philips and others to integrate Android TV, and the platform also made its way to streaming boxes. NVIDIA, in particular, delivered the best implementation of Android TV with the Shield TV, and Xiaomi has a budget-focused option in the Mi Box S
Nexus 6 — Motorola's Shamu redefines phablets
Google teamed up with Motorola to launch the Nexus 6, a phablet if ever there was one. The Nexus 6 was an oversized Moto X with Android 5.0 Lollipop out of the box. It was big, bulky, and awkward to use, and the $649 price tag didn't win fans over either. This thing was the bane of pockets everywhere — coming in at 159.3 x 83 x 10.1mm, it was wider, taller, and significantly bulkier than the Galaxy S10+.
For what it's worth, the large 5.9-inch QHD AMOLED panel was one of the best available at the time, and the phone had stereo speakers at the front and decent battery life. It was a great showcase for Lollipop and Material Design, but it was far from the best Nexus phone.
Xiaomi rolls out the $100 Redmi Note
Xiaomi wasn't the first to roll out a $100 smartphone, but the Redmi Note was the first $100 phone that you could actually use for over 30 minutes without getting the urge to throw it out the window. The hardware is pretty modest by today's standards — a 5.5-inch 720p panel, MediaTek MT6592 octa-core chipset, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of RAM with a 32GB MicroSD slot, 13MP camera and a 3200mAh battery — but back in 2014, the Redmi Note redefined the entry-level category.
Basically, the Redmi Note was the first $100 phone that didn't suck. And that was important, because it allowed Xiaomi to make inroads into new markets like India. Before Xiaomi introduced the Redmi Note, the entry-level segment was rife with white-label devices that ran outdated versions of Android. Xiaomi's foray into this category also acted as a catalyst for other Chinese manufacturers to roll out their own options.
Xiaomi continued to iterate on the design of the Redmi Note with better specs and more features, and in 2018 it announced that the Redmi 5A was the best-selling Android phone globally.
Android One launches, immediately flops
2014 was a monumental year for Google: it made its foray into wearables, rolled out Android TV, and introduced a new design language for Android that is going strong to this day. Google hit another milestone that year, with Android running on over one billion devices.
To coincide with the one billion milestone, Google announced the Android One initiative to roll out affordable devices at under $100. Google rolled out the program in India, teaming up with local players Micromax, Karbonn, and Spice to offer devices with stock Android and the promise of quick updates.
While the idea was great, Google's execution was far from ideal, and Android One failed as a result. Although Google set guidelines for specs, the resultant hardware was underwhelming, and Google's marketing efforts were lackluster to say the least. The end result was that the program fizzled out, and although Google continued to roll out Android One devices in 2015 and 2016, they were underwhelming.
Google finally reevaluated its efforts and launched a new wave of Android One devices in 2017, with Xiaomi leading the charge with the Mi A1. The new wave of Android One devices weren't limited to the sub-$100 price point, and device makers were free to select the specs and use their own designs. That freedom allowed Android One to flourish, with the likes of HMD Global committing to the platform for its entire portfolio of devices.
Google acquires Nest
One of the more surprising announcements in 2014 was Google acquiring Nest for $3.2 billion in January. Nest then picked up connected camera maker Dropcam for $555 million later in the year, integrating its product line. Google's decision to pick up Nest was to give the search giant a foothold in the burgeoning internet of things segment, an area where it failed to build momentum with Android@Home.
Although Google stated that Nest would function as its own standalone entity "with its own distinct brand identity," Nest was subsumed into Google's smart home division last year. Google also re-branded its existing smart home products with the Nest moniker, with the Home Hub becoming the Nest Hub, and so on.
Andy Rubin leaves Google
Andy Rubin joined Google back in 2005 after the search giant acquired his startup, Android Inc. Google wanted to kick-start its software operating system with the acquisition, with Rubin overseeing the development of Android. He was in that role until 2013, following which he was moved to Google's moonshots division.
Rubin left Google altogether in 2014, and we had to wait until 2017 to hear all the sordid details. Rubin was found to have had an "inappropriate relationship" with a subordinate while running Android, and even though he was eventually shown the door, he got a $90 million exit package.
More damning evidence surfaced a year later as it was revealed that Rubin was effectively running a "sex ring" with at least five mistresses. The allegations led to a Google employee walkout and CEO Sundar Pichai introducing a new action plan to deal with harassment.
Chinese domination kicks off with Xiaomi
There are few moments that defined India's handset market as much as the arrival of Xiaomi. Prior to Xiaomi's debut, the smartphone scene in the country was dominated by local players like Micromax, Intex, and Lava. But Xiaomi's entry changed all that, and the brand managed to swiftly make its way up the ranks in India on the back of affordable phones that offer great value.
Xiaomi's international expansion was important not just in the context of India, but for the industry as a whole. Xiaomi paved the way for other Chinese brands like OPPO and Vivo to make their debut in global markets, and collectively they pushed out the likes of Sony, HTC, and LG by introducing competitive devices at lower price points.
I'll put the figures into context: back in Q1 2014, the top five global manufacturers were Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Lenovo, and LG. In 2019, that list includes Samsung, Huawei, Apple, Xiaomi, and Vivo/OPPO jointly tied for fifth. Turns out brand loyalty counts for naught when there are savings to be had.
Sundar Pichai becomes CEO of Google
One of the biggest Google stories of 2015 was Sundar Pichai's promotion to CEO of Google. The news was announced by Google's then-CEO Larry Page as part of a corporate restructuring that included the creation of Alphabet (which Page would lead as CEO), a new umbrella holding company under which Google would be the largest subsidiary with Pichai at the helm.
Pichai's promotion to lead Google came as little surprise to anyone in the industry; as the senior VP of Products, he was already head of both the Android and Chrome divisions and was one of the more prominent public figures at Google I/O events. It was a well-deserved promotion that set the stage for Google to release some major new products over the coming years including Google Assistant and the Google Home smart speaker and most notably the company's first Android handset developed entirely in-house, the Google Pixel.
This quote from Page's letter does a good job of encapsulating the direction Google was headed at the time, and why Pichai was the right person to lead the company at the time:
Google itself is also making all sorts of new products, and I know Sundar will always be focused on innovation—continuing to stretch boundaries. I know he deeply cares that we can continue to make big strides on our core mission to organize the world's information.
The debut of Google Photos as a standalone service
2015 was also the year that Google debuted Google Photos as a standalone service with apps for Android, iOS and web. Previously a services integrated into Google+, the new Google Photos app meant that users no longer needed to have a Google+ account to make use of the service's convenient auto back up service and intelligent photo sorting and search abilities. It also ushered in a new era of having all your photos taken across multiple devices stored and accessible from a single place with a simple interface for navigation.
Google Photos has proven to be one of the company's best and most enjoyable-to-use products.
One of the more amazing features introduced with Google Photos was how it would cache all of the photos backed up to the service no matter what device you took them on, allowing you to view all photos uploaded to Google's servers no matter which device you were viewing them on. That meant you could upload to photos.google.com from your computer and instantly find them in the app on your phone without needing to manually download or transfer them over to your phone.
As Andrew Martonik noted at the time, this was a great step for Google towards a unified photo service for Android users, bringing together all of your photos no matter where or how you take them. Google Photos in 2015 wasn't the full-featured app that we know and love today, but it provided a great platform for Google to continue to develop and improve on the machine learning technologies for organizing and repackaging your photos and videos in a friendly and accessible way for everyone.
In no time at all, Google Photos became an integral part of the Android experience. The service would get an extra bump the following year when Google announced that anyone who bought a Pixel (and its outstanding camera) would get unlimited Google Photos storage at original quality for life.
The hot mess that was the Snapdragon 810
One of the biggest controversies of 2015 revolved around Qualcomm and the Snapdragon 810, the company's latest processor that was expected to be used by most smartphone manufacturers for the majority of flagship devices released throughout the year.
The original version of the Snapdragon 810 suffered from heating issues. Qualcomm was quick to deny this and trotted out a line of industry partners who made the claim that it was the best chip available, but real-world usage showed otherwise, and there were cases where phones that used it, like the LG G Flex 2, needed to spend some time in the fridge to keep them running. Thermal throttling made using a device with a Snapdragon 810 a poor experience for many of us.
The Snapdragon 810 was the product of Apple's push into 64-bit quicker than anyone, especially Qualcomm, thought possible. It was rushed out of the door and suffered as a result.
Later in 2015, the Nexus 6P arrived with a slightly updated version of the Snapdragon 810 and it didn't suffer from throttling the same way. While we can't be sure exactly what Qualcomm changed, we do know one reason why — the 64-bit version of Android using the 64-bit chip in the Nexus 6P was written by Google in-house. Android OEMs hadn't had to do anything like this themselves, and Google has plenty of kinks to work out.
The Snapdragon 810 will never be remembered as one of Qualcomm's best. But its story does show the value in letting Google do its job and using what it makes available rather than companies like Samsung trying to do the hard work on its own. That's part of what makes Android great; Google can make it work and phone makers can make it work better.
The end of the Nexus line: Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P
We may not have known it at the time, but 2015 would mark the beginning of the end for the Nexus program.
Started back in 2010, the Nexus program saw Google partnering with a leading smartphone manufacturer (HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola and Huawei) on an annual basis to release a flagship Android phone launched alongside the release of the latest version of the Android operating system. The main draw of the Nexus line was the stock Android experience without the bloat or other software modifications added by wireless carriers or manufacturers.
In 2015, Google partnered with two companies to release two unique devices: LG for the Nexus 5X and Huawei for the Nexus 6P. Both phones were announced on September 2015, launched running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and were fairly well received by reviewers and Android enthusiasts alike.
The Nexus 5X was a mid-range phone that was a direct follow up to LG's Nexus 5 released in 2013. It ran on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 and featured 2GB of RAM with storage options of 16 or 32GB. Its chassis was crafted from hard polymer plastic with a soft-touch finish on the back. Around front was a 5.2-inch FHD LCD display powered by a 2,700mAh battery. The rear camera featured a 12.3MP sensor that used laser autofocus and was capable of shooting video in 4K at 30fps and 720p slow-mo video at 120fps.
Huawei's Nexus 6P was the only Nexus flagship to be designed with an all-aluminum body and features the previously mentioned Snapdragon 810 (v2.1). It offered 3GB of RAM and storage options of 32, 64, and 128GB. The 6P featured a 5.7-inch AMOLED display and a 3,450 mAh battery — the largest ever built into a Nexus phone. Despite that, the Nexus 6P remained a remarkably thin phone (and was subsequently lumped in with the "bendgate" scandal that plagued the equally thin iPhone 6 Plus). The 6P featured an identical rear camera sensor as the 5X, but was capable of shooting 240fps slow-mo video in 720p.
Both phones were among the first to use USB-C and the only Nexus phones to include a fingerprint scanner. They would continue to receive regular software updates from Google up until the release of Android Oreo. Google officially stopped supporting the 5X and 6P with the final security patch update arriving in December 2018.
NVIDIA unveils Tegra X1 chipset with NVIDIA Shield TV
Few devices have held up as well over the years as the NVIDIA Shield TV. First announced at the Game Developers Conference on March 3, 2015, the Shield instantly became not only the best Android TV console, but arguably one of the most complete solutions for living room entertainment.
It was the first Android TV device to support 4K content and was also heavily marketed at gamers as a surprisingly capable microconsole thanks to NVIDIA's cutting-edge Tegra X1 processor. This, we remind you, is the same processor that Nintendo used for the wildly popular Switch console.
Right from day one, the Shield TV has featured outstanding specs that still hold up today as one of the best whole home entertainment options. NVIDIA launched a standard Shield TV model with 16GB and a Pro model that offered a whopping 500GB of storage. The two USB ports around back support all sorts of accessories, whether you wanted to connect a keyboard and mouse for easier navigation, or an external harddrive loaded with all your favorite media.
There's a reason the NVIDIA Shield TV is the only Android TV box we recommend: it's just so damn good, even four years later.
For gamers, NVIDIA provided AAA titles optimized for the Shield TV from the Google Play Store and stream games from the cloud via NVIDIA's GRID service. NVIDIA launched its own gaming controller, but Bluetooth support meant that you could connect practically any other controller you had kicking around just as easily.
The physical design of the console was sleek, futuristic and made of aluminum and remained largely unchanged over the years until the 2019 re-design.
A big part of NVIDIA's success with the Shield TV has to do with its software support. No other Android TV box manufacturer has shown the dedication to consistently improving and upgrading the user experience like NVIDIA has. It's the main reason why the NVIDIA Shield TV has continued to own the Android TV segment since 2015, with no other streaming box really coming close to matching the Shield TV streaming and gaming prowess.
Google unveils the first Pixel phone
After years of putting out Nexus phones of wildly varying quality, Google finally launched its first own-branded handsets in the fall of 2016. Initial rumors pegged HTC as the manufacturer for the year's Google phones, after Huawei reportedly refused to work on a device which wouldn't be co-branded in any way. Huawei at the time was trying hard to push into the U.S. market, so a device that didn't advance its brand was a no-go.
With Huawei out of the picture, HTC — still a fairly major presence in the industry at that time — was keen to keep its partnership with Google going. That meant a sprint to the finish line through the rest of 2016 as the folks in Mountain View and New Taipei teamed up on the Google Pixel and Pixel XL.
By all accounts, the critical reception to the first Pixels was rather positive. The design was a bit boring, the base 32GB of storage was a bit cramped, and it was missing water resistance, which at the time was just starting to become table stakes for high-end phones. In these areas, the Pixel was a step behind the competition.
But this was the first proper Google phone. And so reviewers, yours truly included, looked past these gripes and instead found themselves enamored with the Pixel's phenomenal camera, speedy performance and intelligent new Assistant.
I collected my Pixel XL review unit less than 24 hours before a weeklong trip to China — perhaps not the best locale to get to know a phone built around Google services, but data roaming and VPNs ensured the essential apps and features kept humming along.
One thing the Great Firewall couldn't block, however, was the Pixel's awesome camera. The Pixel camera was the biggest showcase to date for a technology known as GCam (Google's internal name for HDR+.) This had been an optional setting on every Nexus phone since the Nexus 5, but the Pixel saw it fine-tuned, supercharged on faster hardware and most importantly, enabled in every photo. Google had brought Computational Photography — photography enhanced by the power of speedy phone processors — to the mass market. And at that time, it had an enormous lead.
So whether it was super-stabilized 4K video walking through Shenzhen's Huaqiangbei shopping district, or night-time shots on the water in Shanghai or Hong Kong, I shot some of the best photos I'd ever taken on the first-gen Pixel. For me, the Google integration of this first generation of phones was almost secondary — as were its well-documented shortcomings. What made the Pixel a joy for me to use was the camera.
The Galaxy Note 7 blew up in Samsung's face
I've seen plenty of disastrous Android phone launches through almost a decade at Mobile Nations, but nothing quite compares to a handset literally catching fire and exploding — twice. It's a story that students of marketing and PR are sure to pore over in decades ahead, as Samsung had to recall its most advanced, high-priced Android flagship, replace it, recall it all over again and ultimately cancel the whole thing.
The story starts shortly after launch with a handful of reports of early Note 7 users experiencing battery overheat issues in Samsung's native South Korea. One or two defective units out of millions are easy to explain away, and so the story simmered through most of August 2016. But then they kept coming, and coming. And then not just in Korea. Batteries in units in China and the U.S. were overheating, catching on fire, and yes, exploding — some of them on camera. From a PR perspective, images of your shiny new product, charred and wrecked, on nightly newscasts were far from ideal. Samsung risked losing years of customer goodwill.
When eventually it became clear that exploding Note 7s were indeed a thing, thanks in part to some excellent reporting by The Verge, events quickly overtook Samsung. Phones were allegedly exploding on peoples' nightstands, in their pockets, and on airplanes. And as the manufacturer was scrambling to understand what had gone wrong, regulators in countries across the world sprung into action. It quickly became forbidden to bring a Note 7 onboard a plane, or send it through the mail. Even Samsung had to ship them back to Korea by sea, in specially fire-insulated boxes.
Samsung knew it had a serious problem on its hands. PR reps at the IFA trade show in Berlin were quickly recalled home, and the Korean mothership took control of the messaging. The company eventually voluntarily recalled the Note 7, delaying the European launch for the phone in the process.
In early September, Samsung revealed that it'd pinpointed the origin of the Note's incendiary tendencies: Unsurprisingly, a hardware defect in the battery itself. New units, with different batteries, would be rolling out in the weeks ahead, and would sport fancy green battery icons to let users know all was well.
Only all was not well. It only took a few more weeks for reports of these new Note 7s catching fire to surface. And the reports weren't isolated. More new Notes from more countries were continuing to go up in smoke. Speculation at the time was that Samsung had rushed the new units to market and failed to properly address the underlying issue.
At this point, the Note 7 was irrecoverable. And the task facing Samsung became one not of rebounding into success for one particular product, but preventing this catastrophic phone launch from permanently tarnishing its mobile brand.
Note 7s, both new and old, were collected by carriers and Samsung itself, packaged in the aforementioned fireproof boxes, and shipped back to Korea for postmortem. Samsung was left with egg on its face, damage to its reputation and a charred, 5.7-inch diagonal hole in its fall 2016 lineup.
The fallout of the Note 7's cancellation is every bit as fascinating as the events that led to it. Samsung eventually revealed that a second unrelated battery hardware flaw had resulted in the supposedly fixed batch of Notes catching fire, and pledged a new regimen of battery safety tests for future phones, starting with the Galaxy S8. The following two generations of Samsung flagships would play it decidedly safe in terms of battery capacities — where critics said Samsung had overreached in the cancelled model — lest the Note 7 debacle repeat itself.
Samsung gradually started pushing out updates to reduce the Note 7's maximum charge level, and eventually prevent charging altogether, to prompt the few holdouts from retaining the potentially dangerous handset. Outgoing non-emergency calls from Note 7s on some carriers were forwarded to customer services to arrange for the offending unit to be picked up. Even then, a small faithful held out, refusing to update their firmware and using the recalled Note at considerable risk to themselves and those around them.
That was a sign of just how loyal Samsung's Note fanbase had become. After the second recall, the firm quickly rebounded from a period of dreadful PR, which also saw the family-led group's heir going to jail for corruption. Samsung came back fighting with the Galaxy S8 and Note 8 series, and fans were ready to forgive and move on. As much as Samsung had fumbled its communications in the immediate aftermath of the first Note 7 fires, it compensated it in the long run with clear explanations of the specific issues, and the steps taken to avoid a repeat in future phones.
Two years later, it's startling that barely anyone was talking about the Note 7 debacle, outside of a few snarky callbacks in blog posts.
Google Duo debuts and is actually pretty popular
In 2016, as is traditional for all years with a number in them, Google launched new messaging applications. The ill-fated Google Allo was the first, shown at the Google I/O conference and rolled out in September. But the second avoided Allo's fate and continues to be a staple of Google's mobile services loadout to this day.
Google Duo was intended to take on Facetime, the ubiquitous video calling app for Apple devices. Duo was optimized for weak connections like WhatsApp, and worked based on phone numbers, also like WhatsApp. Unlike WhatsApp, though, it was preloaded on just about every Google-certified Android phone, giving it an automatic potential user base in the billions. Google also boosted Duo's profile with cutesy features like "knock knock," giving recipients a preview of the person who's calling before they pick up.
The problem with Duo, like all Google's recent messaging efforts, was that it lacked the most important feature of any chat app — your friends. By 2016, many of us in the West were stuck in our ways when it came to to which messaging apps we liked to use. For those of us with a home screen folder full of half a dozen offerings, adding yet another from a company with a poor history of follow-through on unpopular services was an irksome proposition.
Then again, Duo has so far stood the test of time, perhaps through sheer force of market presence. Google Duo now stands at 4 million users on Android alone. Will it stick around or be Killed by Google? We'll have to wait through the next decade to find out.
Google brings AI mainstream with the Google Assistant and Google Home
Voice control in Android is nothing new — it's been around since before phones were all interchangeable, extra-tall touchscreens. But the Google Assistant, debuting in 2016, was supposed to be different. Assistant was supposed to make Google more personable — instead of talking to an all-seeing corporate overlord, you were talking to your own personal assistant.
Assistant was to be more useful too, as well as more personable. Because it had access to all the data in your Google account, it could show you your photos, share stuff with contacts and between apps, and understand the context of human speech better than its competitors at the time.
This new product, which eventually seemed like just an offshoot of Google Voice Search, was to become an integral part of Google's push towards an AI-first vision. Whatever Google (or indeed non-Google) device you were using, whether it was a phone, a tablet, a Chromebook, a smart speaker, the user-facing personality.
Assistant came into its own on the Google Home smart speaker, launched in the U.S. in late 2016 alongside the Pixel phones. Google Home, as well as being a pretty decent miniature speaker, was a pedestal for the new Assistant, because almost everything you did on the device had to go through the Assistant. Thankfully, for an audio-only device, this worked pretty well, and the original Google Home spawned the following year's Home Mini, and eventually, the company's current loadout of Nest Hub products.
Although the 2016 launch of Google Assistant on the ill-fated Allo chat platform was one of 2016's more low-key Android moments, there's no denying its longterm significance.
Android 7 Nougat helps save hard-working batteries with Doze
Looking back, there's not a whole lot that excites about Android 7 Nougat. The name is awkward to say (especially if you insist on pronouncing it with a hard T.) in one of those years where Google either couldn't think of a better sweet treat, or fumbled a rumored corporate partnership with Nutella maker Ferrero.
But the OS itself brought many of the features we take for granted in Android today, as Google hit its stride making a true 64-bit operating system, and started to layer meaningful features on top of the old Marshmallow release.
Multi-window finally came to Android, bringing the entire OS into line with what Samsung had first pioneered in 2012's Galaxy Note 2. The "Project Doze" initiative stopped lesser-used apps from gorging themselves on power in the background. And the new notification system let you reply to messages right from the notification shade, without opening the app. This was an Android update that combined lots of small upgrades into a very compelling overall package.
Many people experienced Android 7.1 Nougat for the first time on Google's Pixel phones, to which it was briefly exclusive. Early Nexus owners would first get version 7.0, which brought all the new features they'd been expecting (minus the Pixel UI), though with some compromises around performance and battery life.
Nevertheless, Android 7 is an important milestone for the OS. It's the first version to shop on a Pixel; the first to get serious about conserving power, and bringing disorderly background apps in line. And you could double-tap the Recent Apps key to hop between two apps — awesome!
Google Daydream debuts
Not every Google launch in 2016 was an Assistant or a Google Home or a Pixel. Daydream was Google's ill-fated venture into smartphone-based VR, which actually formed a major part of Android Nougat. Google's OS was optimized to also help high-end phones double as makeshift VR displays.
Like other smartphone-based VR endeavors, the idea was to create a top-notch VR experience by taking advantage of the high-resolution screen and processing power you already own — in your phone — along with a relatively cheap plastic headset. Setup for Daydream was less clunky than Samsung's Gear VR at the time, and Google did an admirable job of courting both device makers and content providers to get Daydream phones, headsets and apps onto users' faces.
Mobile VR, in general turned out to be a hard sell. First you needed a high-end Android phone — a very specific high-end Android phone at that, then you needed a piece of kit to plug it into that'd run a hundred dollars extra. And you'd still look like an idiot if you used it outside of the house.
With the benefit of hindsight, the market for smartphone-based VR was just too much of a niche. There was a gulf between it and the literally-named Google Cardboard in terms of quality, but also, unfortunately, in terms of price and accessibility. A couple of years after Daydream debuted, it and smartphone VR in general was in decline. The future of VR, it seems, now lies with expensive PC setups and cheaper dedicated headsets.
Google acquires HTC's smartphone engineer division
Google hadn't had a true hardware arm to produce its custom-designed phones since the days of its Motorola acquisition (May 2012 - January 2014), and it was forced to work with third-party OEMs to design and manufacture the Nexus and initial Pixel lines of phones through 2018. By 2017 the writing was on the wall that if Google wanted to really have control over its devices and push what its vision of Android should be, it would need to get back in the hardware game.
In September 2017, Google announced that it had "acqui-hired" HTC's smartphone division, adding over 2,000 talented mobile engineers and designers in Taipei. As Rick Osterloh, Google's hardware head said at the time:
HTC has been a longtime partner and has created some of the most beautiful, high-end devices on the market. We can't wait to welcome members of the HTC team to join us on this journey.
The fruits of this labor still haven't been fully realized, but glimpses of the team's work can be seen in 2019's Pixel 3a and Pixel 4 line of phones. While not perfect, both product lines are well-made, well-designed, and among the best smartphones in their respective price points.
Pixelbook, Queen of Chromebooks, debuts
The original (and still current) Google Pixelbook debuted in early October 2017 at the Made by Google event that also brought us the Pixel 2 and 2XL, Google Home Mini, and Google Home Max. The general consensus at that time (and through the present day) was that it was a marvel of engineering, with superb build quality and an awesome display and keyboard. It was the pinnacle of Chromebook design, but it came at a price.
Starting at $999 (with models available well over $1,600), it was in a weird segment of the laptop market because it was competing not with other (good) Chromebooks but rather with decent to really-good entry-level machines from Apple and numerous Windows PC manufacturers. And while many Chromebook faithful had to pine away for such quality at first, the Pixelbook (like the Chromebook Pixels before it) spawned a new golden age of mid-tier and sub-premium Chromebooks like the Asus C434 and Acer Chromebook Spin 13, among others.
The Pixelbook remains for sale in the Google Store and in online and physical retail outlets around the world, and to this day holds its crown as the best Chrome OS laptop that you can purchase. When Google unveiled the Pixelbook Go in late 2019, that device was slotted in below the original Pixelbook in terms of specs, performance, and price. While the Go is an impressive laptop, I think I speak for all of us in the Google-sphere when I say that I hope there is a new, top-of-the-line Pixelbook 2 released in the not-too-distant future.
Google announces that there are over 2 billion monthly active Android devices
There may be one billion pockets full of iPhones, according to Oprah, but that's barely half of the active Android devices in the world as of two years ago! Google's CEO Sundar Pichai mentioned this milestone at the beginning of the company's I/O developer conference, along with highlighting growth in individual Google apps and services like Photos, Maps, and Drive.
With a wide-range of devices from sub $200 entry-level phones to $2,000 + folding monstrosities, the beauty of Android is that it is accessible to so many people on so many devices and form factors, and it's good to see this continuing to trend upward.
The Pixel 2 launches and brings portrait mode and a whole bunch of HDR+ improvements
As its name suggests, the Pixel 2 (and 2XL) were the second iterations of Google's new smartphone play. They introduced a sleeker design than the previous generation, added IP67 water- and dust-resistance, and kept an exciting "Kinda Blue" third color option. Much to the chagrin of headphone enthusiasts, this was the first Pixel to lose the 3.5mm audio jack. RIP. Perhaps the most interesting addition was the squeeze gestures (borrowed from the HTC U11) that allowed you to quickly call upon the Google Assistant.
The smaller Pixel 2 did still have chunky bezels that resembled an iPhone 6, 7, or 8, but the 2XL had a small forehead and chin that still managed to retain excellent front-facing speakers. However, there were many issues with the LG-manufactured display on the Pixel 2XL, with complaints about viewing angles and blue tinting being bandied around on blogs, podcasts, and user forums.
Despite display issues, Google continued to flex its computational photography muscles with the Pixel 2 and 2XL's camera, which were once again among the best in the industry, though it still wasn't the best video camera experience around. Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from the Pixel 2 and 2XL was that Google was serious about hardware again.
The rise of Portrait Mode and computational photography
The Pixel 2 and 2 XL had their issues, but their longstanding legacy will be cementing so-called "computational photography" as the way forward in smartphone photography. Their predecessors, the original Pixels, were able to make amazing photos with supposedly subpar hardware thanks to advanced processing — but the Pixel 2 series made it clear that it was software, not hardware, that would push smartphone photography forward.
Using still ho-hum imaging hardware (now assisted by OIS), Google dramatically improved its image algorithms to take amazing photos. "HDR+" wasn't a separate mode or something that was just for specific situations anymore — it was simply what the camera did every single time you took a photo. You were no longer capturing a photo and processing it after the fact; your phone was constantly capturing frames, and when you pressed the shutter it combined several and used HDR-like processing to pull it all together to give you a photo better than anything we'd seen from a phone before.
With a single camera sensor and lens, Google was able to do things that took other companies multiple cameras — and do it better. Google's portrait mode was done purely in software, yet somehow did a better job than multi-lens arrangements. And better yet, Google could constantly tweak its photography algorithms and introduce software updates that had a material impact on the quality of photos your Pixel 2 could produce.
Android 8 Oreo brings Project Treble and updates are changed forever
Android 8 Oreo was a seemingly minor update in the grand scheme of things, but it contained within it one massive improvement: Treble.
Officially unveiled at Google I/O in May of 2017, Google touted Treble, or Project Treble as it was called at the time, as a way to modularize Android updates, separating various elements of the software stack so component vendors, like Qualcomm, Broadcom, and others, could update their components without having to rebuild other parts of the OS.
EU fines Google, forces it to open up Android more than ever before
Say what you will about the EU, but you can't say that it's a passive legislative body. After years of battling tech giants like Microsoft for what its members defined as anti-competitive business practices, Europe set its sights on knocking Google down a peg or two and leveling the playing field for mobile search and advertising.
Claiming that Google has been forcing OEMs that ship phones using Android to bundle Google Search, Chrome, and the Play Store, the EU fined Google over five-billion dollars for violating its antitrust rules. The EU argued that this forced bundling had and continued to stifle competition and innovation, and discouraged or prevented users from seeking alternative options.
As early as 2013 Google began bundling its apps and services in what it says was an effort to ease customer confusion and create a better, more unified Android experience. While not denying that it bundles its services, Google reiterated its position that as an open platform, Android not only permits but encourages its users to customize their software, allowing for changes to default applications, skins, and other settings. Regardless of bundling strategies, opponents to the EU ruling also argued that Android is open source, and manufacturers are free to build their own versions based on the AOSP project.
James Damore's anti-diversity memo
Former Google engineer James Damore caused a massive ripple in the burgeoning #MeToo sea of gender discrimination and harassment attention that was coming to the forefront of the public consciousness by 2017.
In the now-infamous memo, Damore acknowledged that while there certainly was disparity between the genders in the tech workplace and in society-at-large, it was wrong to conclude that such disparity was the result of targeted oppression, or that it should be corrected by "authoritarian" corporate or political measures.
Damore claimed that "science" backed up his assertion that disparities in opportunities for men and women could be explained by biological differences rather than more abstract concepts like oppression and discrimination. Many news outlets were vociferous in their objections to Damore's memo, and even tech publications like Wired made efforts to dismantle his arguments point-by-point.
Whether or not you agree that Google is an "ideological echo chamber" you no-doubt were made ever more aware that the gender gap (among other disparity gaps) is still very much a real thing, even in the more "enlightened" world of tech.
The introduction of computational photography night modes
Next to the advent of mobile photography in general, the most significant stride in smartphone imaging has almost undeniably been the improvements to low light photography that Huawei and Google largely kicked off in 2018. Two particular phones come to mind: the Huawei P20 Pro, and the Google Pixel 3.
The P20 Pro came out early in the year, and served as a platform to show off Huawei's new Neural Processing Engine. Combined with pixel binning technology and the 40MP primary sensor, the P20 Pro was able to pull off stunning low light shots unlike any other phone. It shot multiple exposures over the course of about four seconds, then used AI to counteract any motion from your hands and output a photo that could have passed for a long exposure photo on a tripod.
At a time when phone cameras absolutely fell apart at night, this was a groundbreaking feature that largely went unchallenged until Google surprised us with its new Night Sight shooting mode on the Pixel 3 later in the year.
We're still figuring out just how consequential Night Sight will be for the way we take photos on our phones
Night Sight worked similarly to Huawei's night mode, capturing multiple exposures in a short burst and stitching them together, building on top of the HDR+ technologies of the Pixel 2. Google didn't opt for a large sensor and pixel binning like Huawei, however; instead, it took advantage of the smaller file sizes of the Pixel 3's 12.2MP camera to shoot just as many exposures in a shorter amount of time.
This let the Pixel 3 capture equally bright and detailed photos at night almost as quickly as it shot in daytime. Google even took advantage of natural hand motion to extrapolate more data for Night Sight — in fact, it jitters the OIS module in the lens to intentionally create a bit of motion when shooting in Night Sight with the phone propped up or on a tripod.
In many ways, smartphones still can't match dedicated cameras in image quality and versatility, but computational photography helps dramatically narrow that gap. It's a defiance of the small sensors that hold smartphone cameras back, and allows the camera in your pocket to pull off seemingly miraculous shots with almost no work from the end user.
Google makes phone calls (or talking in general) obsolete with Duplex
Google shocked the audience at its I/O conference in May 2018 when it demoed its new AI-driven project, dubbed Duplex. CEO Sundar Pichai pulled out his phone on stage, called a local barber, then let Google Assistant do all of the talking for him.
It was a truly stunning presentation; Google Assistant was able to speak naturally on behalf of the caller to the human on the other end of the call, using AI to understand responses and even adding in conversational fillers like "errs" and "umms" to sound like a real person.
It was pretty convincing, and Duplex was able to set an appointment without Pichai ever saying a word over the phone. Once the call ended, his phone showed a notification from Google Assistant confirming the appointment time and even naming the calendar event. Unsurprisingly, it became one of the biggest stories of the show.
Since then, Duplex has finally rolled out to consumers in most parts of the U.S. — as of right now, it's available in 48 states, excluding only Kentucky and Louisiana, as well as New Zealand. While Duplex was initially only available to Pixel owners, it's since rolled out to all devices running Android 5.0 or newer, and even iPhones running the Google app.
The Pixel 3 matures Google's phone line, but not enough
The Pixel 3 marked a departure from Google's aluminum unibody design of previous generations, switching instead to a frosted glass backing. The general design language was rounder and friendlier than the Pixel 2, and that glass allowed for a Pixel that finally supported wireless charging.
The front design looked much more modern than its predecessor as well, ditching the massive bezels and 16:9 aspect ratio in favor of an 18:9 display — though the larger Pixel 3 XL stepped up slightly to an 18.5:9 aspect ratio with a larger-than-life notch.
Google also addressed the innumerable complaints surrounding the display quality of the Pixel 2 (particularly the 2 XL), fitting its new phones with dramatically better displays that no longer suffered from burn-in issues.
Of course, the Pixel 3 also brought the aforementioned Night Sight camera mode, along with 40% faster HDR+ processing and Super Res Zoom, which uses data from the slight differences in camera positioning while you shoot handheld to improve the image quality of digitally zoomed photos.
Huawei banned from Google apps/services
If there's one story from 2019 that sticks out the most, it has to be the drama regarding Huawei being placed on the United States' entity list. The hammer came down on May 19, with an executive order from the U.S. Commerce Department placing Huawei on a trade blacklist.
This had a lot of ramifications for the company, with the biggest hit being the fact that it resulted in Huawei not being able to use Google apps or services on new phones. The effect of this was first seen with the Mate 30 and Mate 30 Pro, both of which shipped without any connection or tie-ins to Google and any of its apps.
Huawei continued to face backlash from the United States and other countries in the months following the trade ban, with later events seeing the FCC banning government funds from being used to purchase Huawei-made telecom equipment and Huawei actually suing the FCC.
The United States got closer to reaching a trade deal with China towards the end of 2019, and while some took that as a sign that Huawei's troubles would be over, the U.S.'s beef with China is entirely separate from what Huawei is facing. In other words, expect this saga to continue well into 2020.
Google announces plans to buy Fitbit
Fitbit has long been one of the most popular fitness wearable companies, and up until recently, it was its own independent company. On November 1, 2019, however, that all changed. On that date, Google announced plans to purchase Fitbit for $2.1 billion.
Commenting on the deal, Google's Senior Vice President of Devices & Services, Rick Osterloh, said:
Over the years, Google has made progress with partners in this space with Wear OS and Google Fit, but we see an opportunity to invest even more in Wear OS as well as introduce Made by Google wearable devices into the market. Fitbit has been a true pioneer in the industry and has created engaging products, experiences and a vibrant community of users. By working closely with Fitbit's team of experts, and bringing together the best AI, software and hardware, we can help spur innovation in wearables and build products to benefit even more people around the world.
The wording of that statement leads us to believe that Google will incorporate part of Fitbit — whether that be its hardware, fitness tracking tech, or both — into future Wear OS devices. Existing Fitbit trackers and smartwatches seem to be existing separate from this, at least for the time being.
A lot of the details still remain unclear, and the deal has yet to go through officially. Everything should be wrapped up sometime in 2020, but nonetheless, even the announcement of the purchase was still one of the biggest things to happen during this year.
Sundar Pichai becomes Alphabet CEO
Google's parent company, Alphabet, hasn't seen itself in the limelight for a while. In fact, since it was formed in 2015, the overarching umbrella over Google and its other companies has sort of taken a backseat to what its individual brands are up to. That changed in 2019.
On December 3, 2019, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was appointed the new role of Alphabet CEO. In addition to Pichai now being CEO for Google and Alphabet simultaneously, this news also saw Google/Alphabet co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin step down from their leadership positions at Alphabet.
Page and Brin are sticking around with Alphabet as Board members and have said that they're "deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term", but this still marked two tech giants taking another step back and letting other people be in control.
At the end of their letter announcing the news, Page and Brin left on a humbling and heart-warming note:
We are deeply humbled to have seen a small research project develop into a source of knowledge and empowerment for billions—a bet we made as two Stanford students that led to a multitude of other technology bets. We could not have imagined, back in 1998 when we moved our servers from a dorm room to a garage, the journey that would follow.
Android 10 gets rid of tasty treats, adds tasty features
Every year sees the release of a new Android version, and while each one brings about change to the OS, some are bigger and more important than others. Android 10 proved to be one of those more important updates, and in a few different ways.
Without a doubt, the biggest draw to Android 10 was the addition of a system-wide dark mode — FINALLY! Not only does Android 10's dark mode make core UI elements easier on the eyes, but it also enables a dark theme on any apps that support it.
Something else that stood out about Android 10 was the heap of changes that app permissions got. The redesigned permissions now make it more clear what an application is asking for, along with new options for granting an app access to said permission all the time or only when it's being used. We're all for anything to give users more control over the privacy and security of their phone, so this was great to see.
Finally, and perhaps the most controversial, Android 10 marked the first Android release to ship without an accompanying dessert name. This is going to be the status quo for all updates going forward, meaning future updates will simply be called Android 11, Android 12, etc.
RIP in peace: Google+ shuts down
Oh, Google+. Launched back in 2011, Google's social network never really caught on the way the company was likely hoping for, but there's also no doubt that it was sort of the go-to social network for talking about Android and other tech topics (at least for a while).
Google+ hadn't been making any real progress or headway for a while, but following two major data breaches in 2018, it was announced that the failed social network would be shutting down for consumer access in April 2019.
It's honestly impressive that Google+ stuck around as long as it did, and while it still exists for enterprise use, the version that we all knew (and probably didn't love) has officially bid farewell.
A Google-run social network seems like something that should have been a huge success, and in an alternate universe, it probably is. For us, though, it's now just a distant memory we'll tell our kids stories about.
Google launches Stadia
While one big Google service was killed off in 2019, another one was born. This is the year that Stadia — Google's game streaming service — entered the market. To put things nicely, Stadia's launch was... rocky.
The idea behind Stadia is incredible. In theory, it allows you to play console and PC video games anywhere you want, be it your TV, laptop, or smartphone. All you need is an internet connection, a controller, and you're off to the races. At least that's what we thought.
Stadia's actual launch ended up being a bit of a trainwreck. The game library was tiny, the only phones to support it were Google's Pixel devices, you had to have the "wireless" controller plugged into a phone in order to play, many of the advertised features weren't ready, you had to buy a $129 bundle to get access, etc., etc.
Google's gradually improving the user experience and tying all of the loose ends together, but there's no doubt that people who got Stadia at launch were treated to something they weren't expecting. We're excited for the potential Stadia has and where it can go in the future, but its presence in 2019 left a lot to be desired.
First foldable phones
A lot of people seem to be of the mindset that smartphones are boring, but 2019 proved that that simply isn't the case. Why? It was the year of foldables.
The very first folding phone to hit the market, the Royale FlexPai, wasn't exactly the foldable future we'd been hoping for, but between the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X, companies proved to us that folding smartphones are real and here to stay. Motorola also unveiled its first foldable that's launching in 2020, the Motorola RAZR.
Foldable phones are far from perfect, with the main complaints revolving around durability, but the fact that these even exist in the first place is damn exciting.
These devices made us completely rethink what a "smartphone" is, and they're likely setting the groundwork for the next decade of phones that we see.
First 5G phones
Another "first" that 2019 was home to was the birth of 5G phones. 5G as a whole still has a lot of quirks that need to be ironed out before it's as widely available and reliable as 4G LTE, but that shouldn't downplay the importance of the first batch of 5G-capable phones hitting the market.
While buying a 5G phone in 2019 didn't make a lot of sense for most people, they did give consumers a way to access newly-launched 5G service if their carrier provided it. We saw a lot of big names jump on the 5G bandwagon, including the likes of Samsung, LG, and even OnePlus here in the U.S.
5G's bound to become more mainstream in 2020, but only because of the 5G phones released in 2019. These devices allowed manufacturers to see how the new wireless tech affected their hardware in day-to-day use, and with that knowledge, they'll be able to go into 2020 with better-performing and longer-lasting handsets that can connect to 5G without compromising the rest of the user experience.
Pixel 3a and Pixel 4 launched
As far as Google's Pixel series goes, 2019 was a bit of a rollercoaster.
May 2019 saw the release of the Pixel 3a, Google's first mid-range Pixel phone. It received hugely positive reviews from critics and consumers alike, with some of the highlights being its OLED display, reliable performance, and the 12.2MP rear camera that was virtually on the same level as the flagship Pixel 3. With a starting price of just $399, it stood out as one of the year's best values.
Then, in October 2019, we got the Pixel 4. Its reception was, well, not as positive as the 3a's. While the Pixel 4 brought a lot to the table, namely its dual rear cameras and 90Hz display, the embarrassingly bad battery life put a grey cloud over the entire package.
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