Running on more than 1 billion smartphones, Android is currently the biggest, most popular mobile platform in the world. But that was not the way it was back in the day, when Android was nothing more than a fledgling company purchased by Google in 2005.
Before Google's funny teaser videos hyping up the dessert-y names of its next Android iterations, before the swanky new interface called Material Design, and before the loads of smart, new features that make our lives just a bit easier every day, there was a mobile operating system that was undergoing stunningly rapid evolution inside Google's headquarters even as other mobile titans such as Apple and BlackBerry were pushing ahead with their head starts on their own platforms.
Pre-Android Era (2003)
Android actually began as a separate company founded by Andy Rubin, Rich Miner, Nick Sears and Chris White. The original aim was for Android to be an advanced operating system for digital cameras, but seeing that there weren't too many cameras for Android to become a powerhouse OS, the founders tweaked their vision to develop smart mobile software that could recognize the phone owner's preferences.
The founders intended Android to be an open-source OS, with tools that allowed developers to tweak the system as they pleased. When Google stepped in to take Android under its wing in 2005, the idea to keep Android an open platform remained. To this day, the tweak-ability of Android remains one of its strongest features-and also one of its weakest-as anyone with the knowledge to do so can do pretty much anything and everything with stock Android as they please.
Android 0.3 and Android 0.9 Beta (November 2007 to August 2008)
Before Android was launched to the public as the sweet treats we know them today, Google took its own sweet time working on the platform as an emulator build made available only to developers.
The first of these builds is Android 0.5, Milestone 3 emulator, also known by the unwieldy name of m3-rc20a. Despite the first iPhone already announced in 2007, Milestone 3 went after a BlackBerry-style interface with a QWERTY bar skin, which led to comments that it was just another BlackBerry imitation. At that time, BlackBerry was at the top of its game, being one of the best-selling cell phone makers in the world.
Milestone 3 was a barebones platform far, far short of what Android is today. There was no home screen, widgets or notification panels, and you could make your way around mostly with the use of a five-way d-pad, although there was already a bit of support for touchscreen.
However, Milestone 3 already saw signs of Google's animations and had support for multitasking and background apps, a feature that only made its way to iOS in 2010. Google also foresaw the importance of Maps and added a now-defunct version of its Maps client to Milestone 3.
Following this version three months after is Milestone 5, which was still Android 0.5 but with a host of new improvements. By this time, Google had nearly finalized the menu and notification panel, a feature that still appears to this day in pretty much the same form by being pulled down from the top of the screen. Milestone 5 was also the first version to have a dialer, albeit Milestone 3 already had the ability to place calls.
In August 2008, Google released Android 0.9. It was still an emulator build, but Google called it the beta version of the first official Android release. This time, Google had the home screen down pat, and Milestone 5 allowed users to rearrange the screen by holding down apps and dragging them around, the first sign that Google was moving to a more touch-friendly approach in its development of Android.
There were only 21 apps, however, and all of them were native apps built by Google, including Messaging, Pictures, Camera, Alarm Clock, Calculator and Music. There was no Play Store at the time, and there were only three widgets: Clock, Search and Picture Frame.
One major addition to Android 0.9, and also one of the most popular subjects in the growing Android vs. iOS rift, was the ability to copy-paste text wherever in the OS.
Android G1 (October 2008)
There was no Android Apple Pie or Android Butterscotch. There was only Android G1, which shipped with the T-Mobile G1 in October 2008, competing with the iPhone 3G and the Nokia 1680. Customers and developers did not take Android as seriously as they do today, but the G1 smartphone running on a single-core processor, 192MB of RAM and 256MB of built-in storage was said to have sold 1 million units by 2009.
The first official iteration of Android had a full suite of Google apps, including Gmail, IM and Maps as well as YouTube and Voice Dialer, which both hint at Google's vision of how important video and voice commands are going to be. At that time, Google did not have a music store to rival iTunes, thus began an era of offering bundled services with the inclusion of Amazon's MP3 store.
However, probably the most important addition to Android G1 was the Android Market, what is now seen as the prototype to Google Play Store. Unlike the Apple App Store, which was largely filtered by Apple for design and functionality, the Android Market was open to all, which meant developers could submit all the best-and all the worst-apps and games for Android, giving users free reign over what apps they could download into their devices. Android Market launched with about 35 apps in all, a far cry from the more than a million apps now sitting on the Play Store.
Android 1.5 Cupcake (April 2009)
Here begins Google's legacy of naming major Android iterations after desserts. Cupcake saw several minor improvements to the operating system, but one of the most important of these was the inclusion of an on-screen keyboard, which allowed device manufacturers to do away with so many physical keys.
Also remarkable was the addition of video recording, which allowed users to switch between taking photos and videos using the separate Camera and Camcorder apps. The Camera also received a few changes, such as the creation of a shutter button that meant the device no longer needed a physical shutter button as well as the integration of a photo gallery within the app.
Android 1.6 Donut (September 2009)
The major change introduced in Donut was the inclusion of support for CDMA networks, thus widening Android's reach to non-GSM carriers such as Verizon and Sprint. In addition, Donut saw continuous tweaks and design improvements, particularly to the Android Market, Camera and YouTube.
The universal search box, which was previously only able to search the web, was also expanded to search in music, videos, apps and files stored on the phone. Donut was also the first version to have a battery life indicator and support for text-to-speech languages.
Android 2.0 Éclair (October 2009)
As you can see, the development of Android was rapid in its earlier days. Just more than a month after the launch of Donut, Google introduced Android 2.0 Éclair, the first Android iteration to start looking more like the Android we know today, which is perhaps due to the fact that Google chose the Motorola Droid to bear the banner for its mobile platform.
With a 3.7-inch LCD touchscreen display with a resolution of 854 x 480, the Verizon-exclusive Droid forced Google to redesign the interface altogether. The icons were redrawn and started looking crisper and richer, while Google also introduced the first set of live wallpapers and placed the search bar at the top of the home screen, an Android mainstay we still see today. The richer graphics, as well as the inclusion of support for Microsoft Exchange, suddenly made Android an attractive platform for business users.
Besides the aesthetic makeover, three key improvements also made their way to Éclair. The first is the introduction of Bluetooth 2.1 support, which allowed users to transfer files in a high-speed fashion to other devices within a short distance. The second is the inclusion of Google Maps Navigation, which single-handedly killed the GPS market in 2009, even though Android's navigation feature was still in beta at that time. And the third one is the addition of third-party apps, notably the old Facebook client and Verizon's Visual VM.
The Nexus One, the first Nexus smartphone launched by Google, ran on Android Éclair. It was also the smartphone that signaled the thermonuclear war Steve Jobs waged against Google.
Android 2.2 Froyo (May 2010)
The browser also began having support for Flash, which Jobs has banned from iOS because of its multitude of bugs. To get around the problems, Google set Flash videos as on demand by default, letting users turn on Flash only if they want to view the video. Even though Android never really got Flash right because of its buggy nature, Google succeeded in using this is a tactic to win over users from the iPhone, since Flash is still widely used in many apps and websites to this day, despite security experts calling for a Web-wide ban on Flash.
Android 2.3 Gingerbread (December 2010)
Google took an unusually long time making the jump from Froyo to Gingerbread, and during those seven months in between versions, Google attempted to give the whole UI a major makeover. The result was a crisper, more modern design that can, in a way, keep up with Apple's iOS, which was iOS 4 at that time.
This version led to the proliferation of selfies, by making it easier to switch between the back camera and the front camera with just a single tap of a button, and introduced Near-Field Communications (NFC), the technology that makes mobile payments such as Google Wallet and Apple Pay possible today.
Android Gingerbread was introduced through the Nexus S, a 4-inch device manufactured by Samsung, thus began an era of Google-Samsung partnerships that eventually led Samsung to become the biggest Android smartphone maker it is today.
Android 3.0 Honeycomb (February 2011)
Coming hot on the heels of Gingerbread was Honeycomb, a version that Google admitted it had rushed out the door in response to Apple's launch of the first iPad in 2010.
Honeycomb was a tablet-only version, and Google never released the code to people who might want to install it for their mobile phones. Rushing this version out to market also meant the software wasn't at its best. For instance, support for Flash, a key differentiator between Android and iOS was never baked in.
Nonetheless, there were a slew of continuous improvements in Honeycomb, most notable of all is yet again the improved design of the user experience, thanks to Google hiring Matias Duarte, the chief designer for Palm's WebOS. Foremost among the design changes is the inclusion of a fixed status bar at the bottom of the screen, which meant Android devices with no buttons, save for the power buttons and the volume buttons, could then be shipped.
Honeycomb also introduced more support for multitasking, reinforcing Google's claim to the business sector by introducing features such as side-by-side browser tabs and dual-pane modes for email and the address book.
Gaming also became a key focus of Honeycomb, with the addition of better support for 3D graphics-the Motorola Xoom, the flagship tablet for Honeycomb, was powered by an NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor---and support for external controls such as gamepads, joysticks and keyboards.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (October 2011)
Ice Cream Sandwich was all about making Honeycomb available for mobile phones, while bringing in a slew of cool new features such as face unlocking, data usage tracking and Android Beam. It was during this version that Google brought in a mobile version of Chrome, which allowed for syncing bookmarks and saved pages with the web version.
Obviously, the Honeycomb redesign introduced eight months back trickled its way to mobiles, with the toning down of the dark, sci-fi tones in the previous version to something a bit more colorful.
Here also starts an era of carrier superiority complex, as Verizon, which debuted the Samsung Galaxy Nexus running on Ice Cream Sandwich, prohibited the use of certain apps such as Google Wallet, while imposing its own bloatware on the device.
Thus, Google's vision to sell phones directly to consumers was resurrected, and Android Market was rebranded as Google Play Store, unifying all the apps, games, movies and content under the same store name. Google's online store for Nexus devices became Google Play Devices.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (July 2012)
Had Google not introduce Google Play Services in Jelly Bean, this would not have been Android's biggest release ever. Google Play Services, while it didn't sound very exciting at that time, allowed Google to push out updates to Android's core components and to individual apps without needing to update the entire OS. This was also why Google was able to release smaller updates 4.2 and 4.3, also called Jelly Bean, instead of introducing all the big changes in one massive 4.1 dump.
In the design department, one of the major changes you would find was the expanded notifications, which allowed for an extra eight lines of text that was useful for users to see what the notification was all about without opening the app itself. The notifications also included their own buttons, so users can perform actions straight from the notifications themselves.
Another key design improvement, one that would see itself through to the present Google's design philosophy throughout all its apps and websites and finally differentiate itself as a well-designed OS, is the use of cards that were introduced with the launch of Google Now, the predictive search function that gave users the information they want even before they ask for it.
However, one of the biggest improvements in Jelly Bean was something you won't be able to see unless you actually run Jelly Bean. Under Project Butter, Android became faster and smoother, thanks to the addition of features such as triple buffering and the optimization of animations.
Other notable changes in Jelly Bean include the merging of Google's four messaging platforms (Google Talk, Google+ Messenger, Messaging and Google Voice) into a single cohesive app, Google+ Hangouts, which is essentially the Hangouts we know today with still a deep integration with Google+. At that time, Chrome also became the default Android browser, replacing the native browser that highly borrowed elements from Chrome anyway.
It is also no surprise that Android Wear, Google's platform for wearable devices, supports Jelly Bean 4.3 and up. This version of Android began adding support for wearables in 2013, as Google pushed out support for Bluetooth Low Energy to allow Android devices to communicate with each other without consuming a lot of power, and a Notification Access API, which allows a second device to replicate the notification panel.
Android 4.4 KitKat (October 2013)
Project Svelte had KitKat using up a minimum of 340MB memory to function properly, which meant the Nexus 5, with 2GB of RAM, and the best-selling Nexus device to date, perfectly showcased KitKat's smooth, buttery, lag-free goodness.
Thanks to the minimal memory usage, KitKat became the Android for everybody. Even low-end phones with not as much RAM as the Nexus 5 were able to run Android's latest version at that time. Android Wear was upgraded to KitKat too, and Google announced that Google Glass, its smart eyewear project now on its second chance at life, was also going to use KitKat.
Design tweaks continued to be rolled out, the most notable of which was the introduction of immersive mode, which removed the status bars and navigation bars and allowed apps to take advantage of the device's full screen. Completely moving away from the dark themes during the Honeycomb era, Android was now brighter and more colorful, and the status bar became more transparent.
Google Search had become Google Now Launcher, taking up the entire home screen, including the wallpaper, icons, widgets and settings. It was also in KitKat that the voice command "Ok Google" was introduced to wake up the search box.
Android 5.0 Lollipop (October 2014)
Google has touted Lollipop as its "sweetest release yet," with a host of major new features that truly launched Android into a modern-day OS. The UI was completely overhauled with Google's new Material Design aesthetic, showing apps in brighter, bolder colors and featuring smooth animations all throughout the OS.
But it was not just the design that saw a huge change. Android shifted from long-running Dalvik to the new Android Runtime (ART), which gave apps the ability to launch faster than ever before.
Notifications also saw big changes, with the new ability to choose which notifications the user wants to receive and which ones to ignore and to put the most important notifications on the lock screen.
Google also placed the spotlight on security for Android, by turning on device encryption by default and introducing device protection, a feature that rendered lost or stolen devices useless.
Lollipop also introduced a new battery saving mode, multiple user accounts and screen pinning, which allows users to open only one screen to show other people who might want to borrow their device.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow (August 2015)
Marshmallow is the future of Android, and though it is still in developer preview mode, we have gotten a glimpse of what the future OS has in store for all of us. With the new Android, Google will be taking users further with security by allowing them to make granular permissions to what information apps can access about themselves. The software will also include support for USB Type-C, the latest and fastest USB standard currently being rolled out in a few high-end flagship devices.
This version will also include a new memory tracker to help users find out which apps are eating up the most RAM, as well as quick fingerprint access to provide support for fingerprint sensors and access the Google Play Store with a single swipe of the finger.
Currently, Marshmallow is available as a preview build close to its final version for Nexus 5, Nexus 6, Nexus 9 and Nexus Player, but developers can install the build using the following instructions. It is expected that Marshmallow will be officially released soon, possibly with the unveiling of new Nexus devices from LG and Huawei.