How BlackBerry built Android but Apple perfected it

BlackBerry 7290
BlackBerry 7290 (Image credit: Chris Parsons / Android Central)

It all starts back in 2002 when a company called Danger builds a device called the Hiptop — a.k.a. the T-Mobile Sidekick for everyone in the U.S. Yes, there were "data-driven" devices in Japan, and companies were making PDAs, but the smartphone craze can be traced directly back to the Sidekick.

Ironically, the Sidekick wasn't a smartphone and even back then nobody claimed it was anything other than a great way to send messages and have fun playing Rockets and Rocks even though it did feature a robust (by 2002) standards suite of productivity tools like an online calendar and a day planner. But people loved them, and two companies took notice: Microsoft, which bought Danger and went on to build the Kin as a failed direct successor, and BlackBerry who decided that the idea could be done better and people would love it even more.

A look at early BlackBerry devices helps it all make sense. You have a small display and a keyboard and the intent was to let people work while out of the office. Email, calendar, contacts and such were managed by a central server and no matter where you were, you had access as well as a way to reply to anything important. But someone within the company knew they could make those devices even smarter.

All great ideas in tech are a mash-up of smaller, equally great ideas.

That's exactly what BlackBerry (then officially called Research in Motion) did. Microsoft, Nokia, and others also did the same but nothing took off the way "the Crackberry" did, and BlackBerry rode the idea to a huge global success that the company somehow floundered away in the years since.

As it turns out, Danger's former CEO Andy Rubin was paying attention, too. While never a hardware genius and a very flawed man, he is a master at putting new ideas and his own visions into software. He was working on an advanced operating system for digital cameras back in 2004 named Android. After pitching the idea around and failing to have much luck, he decided he could better market Android for phones and got to work. Google acquired the company in 2005, released the T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream in 2008 and by now you know the rest.

T-Mobile G1

Source: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

But there were two key decisions that fundamentally changed Android before it ever was shown to the public. The first was a decision to move Android away from being a BlackBerry clone and into something with "tremendous potential in developing smarter mobile devices that are more aware of its owner's location and preferences" which aligned quite nicely with Google's future as a search and advertising company. People would have loved a cheaper BlackBerry style device as long as it had the same tools and a built-in messenger client. And BrickBreaker, of course. But with Rubin and his wild dreams in charge of development, Android started to take shape with a bit more smarts hidden deep inside the OS.

Had Nokia or Palm been able to find the same success as Android, this website would have a very different name.

Microsoft, Nokia, and even BlackBerry itself were also trying to smarten things up and a look at what Palm was doing showed that people wanted more than just messaging. It seems that every company that was making phones was adding in features, both user-facing and inside the operating system to make devices easier to use and more fun to carry around.

Then along comes Apple and the first iPhone. It took the idea of a smartphone and added extras like a full web browser and access to YouTube along with an amazing all-glass design that ditched the QWERTY keyboard and replaced it with a 10-digit multi-touch on-display version. (Wow, that's a lot of hyphens in one sentence.) People went crazy over it. Not just Apple die-hards, but anyone with an interest in tech either had or wanted an iPhone.

Android had to switch lanes again and produce a device with a large full-color display and match the iPhone's software features. The G1 kept the keyboard, but Google made sure you could use it without ever opening it up.

Love it or hate it, the iPhone changed everything.

BlackBerry was no longer relevant to the smartphone craze, but Apple was. The first iPhone sucked. It was slow, prone to lag or even crash, and being locked to AT&T meant that you never had a good data signal and your calls sounded horrible. But the innovation that came along with it meant that companies like Microsoft, Nokia, and Google had to step things up.

Gboard on a Pixel 4 XL

Source: Joe Maring / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Joe Maring / Android Central)

For a long time, Android was behind on the feature front when it came to a comparison with the iPhone. But with each release, we saw those tiny improvements — some to catch up with Apple, like multi-touch, and others to surpass Apple like the Android Market — but Google and Apple were feeding off of each other and it was great. Two or three new platform updates each year happened, each with major improvements to the user experience and as sales began to climb more attention to detail went into every release. If the iPhone had never happened, I'm betting things would have been very different.

Android and Apple are still shamelessly copying each other and I hope that never changes.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • It's amazing how Apple revolutionized the smartphone market with their iPhone product and that changed the industry going forward. And then a couple years later they introduced the iPad. If it wasn't for Apple and it's iPhone BlackBerry style keyboards would probably still be the norm today. Before the iPhone other brands were trying to be like the BlackBerry and after the iPhone released brands were trying to look more the iPhone.
  • I think you give Apple a bit too much credit... They definitely popularised the touch screen, but in my opinion it was an inevitability. Touch screen devices have been part of the Zeitgeist since at least the 80s thanks to science fiction. And there were people carrying and using them before the iPhone released (I personally had a palm tungsten T3 four years before the iPhone existed). We can't say what would have happened with absolute certainty... But I am confident that without Apple someone else would've made touchscreen devices with mass market appeal by now, and we'd still be blessedly free of the BlackBerry keyboard.
  • I do because they deserve it for the product they created. Instead of just coming out with another phone with a keyboard to look and act like a BlackBerry like everything else in the market they come up with something that looked more sleek with a totally different interface on how you use a phone. Yes basic touch screens existed long before but nothing on the market existed like that until the iPhone. Apple took that big initiative combining the hardware and software for multi touch tech they acquired and brought out a little personal computer. Not many companies could do that or even thought of doing what Apple did. Once the iPhone was out it basically laid the foundation for other OEMs to just copy and build off from it.
  • Cool story, bro.
  • I know that's Apple for you.
  • And how are Apple phones compared to the rest of the market now? Boring slabs of glass like all of them. It's no longer "futuristic" to own an iPhone, you'd just be like everybody else. For example, 50% of the US smartphone market is iPhones. Yawn 🥱
  • "blessedly free from the BlackBerry keyboard" ? Oh please, what about all the keyboard fans that could really use an alternative to all these giant, boring, uninspiring slabs of glass? Typing on glass still sucks.
  • Fun read, Jerry. Even the second iPhone kinda sucked. And, I learned something. The reason my phonecalls sucked and I couldn't hear people was because of AT&t's network. I always thought there was something wrong with my phone, but it happened on my second iPhone as well. That's when I decided to try Android (the LG Optimus G) and I've never looked back.
  • The thing that really changed the game for both Android and Apple, and was really piloted by Palm, was when Microsoft created Exchange Activesync (EAS). (Palm was the first major manufacturer to connect to Exchange in terms of volume.) So many companies were deploying Blackberries and it was the only supported device because RIM's Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) was the only thing that could connect to the Microsoft Exchange Server (which powered Outlook). RIM promised it was secure. Good technologies came along promising the same but access to other devices including iPhone, Android, and Palm Treos; but RIM had the lion's share and many people either didn't want to carry two devices or couldn't carry two devices. When Microsoft launched EAS, devices could connect straight to the Exchange sever. No middleware such as the BES or Good was needed. This meant iPhone users and Android users could bring their own device and any device. And since Android and iPhone offered so much more in terms of capabilities and User experience, even die-hard users were quickly shifting away from Blackberry. And for corporations, not only were their employees more productive because now any & every employee with their own personal device could connect to their email, calendar, etc. And it removed the corporate expense of paying RIM for it's BES and underwhelming devices. You then had an entire new group of users who became enamored with their devices and saw the benefits of buying them for family and friends.
  • How Ford built Renault but Aston Martin perfected it
  • Why is this site still named Android Central? Apple central sounds more appropriate? Still enjoy your work Jerry.
  • What I find interesting is that the original Apple phone had the largest display on the market... And for several years thereafter Steve Job and Apple didn't understand consumer demand for larger screens. I owned one iPhone, the 4S, and only one because it was clear Apple was going to not move quickly into larger displays. Companies like Samsung came along and phones like the Note 1 were game changers. Apple ceded so much market share to Android because their mobile displays remained so small.
  • True. If they had tapped into that demand earlier, Samsung might not have caught up with them.
  • Jerry, do you know something we don't? Hmmm🤔 why this article now, just days after Blackberry released a BB10 update? Is there something cooking and you're getting us ready?
  • BB10 was not updated. BlackBerry World was updated for some certifications. Nothing more. BB10 was end of life on 12/31/19.
  • Tbe facts are Apple changed the smartphone landscape for the better with the iPhone and they did the same with the iPad but we all know that the Android fanboys will try and play down Apple's achievement and success (looking at you @fuzzylumpkin in particular) in revolutionising the smartphone, I'm looking forward to the Android fanboys to blow their stack again at an Apple related article. 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂.
  • "Apple changed the game for the better" Yeah sure, now every smartphone looks as boring as the next piece of glass. People are now addicted to their smartphones more than ever. They've become central to people's lives.
    When people pulled out their phone back then, it was to call or message someone.
    Now it's to spend time scrolling through Instagram or looking at TikToks. Back in the 2000's, they were efficient communicators, not social media traps.