“As an online discussion about iOS vs. Android grows longer, the probability of someone bringing up this link approaches 1.” The argument goes that before the iPhone, Android looked like a BlackBerry clone, and after the iPhone, it suddenly turned into an iOS clone. While this argument, with its pictures, is snappy and easily digestible, it doesn’t actually seem to be supported by the facts.
To summarise the argument: before the iPhone, Android looked like a BlackBerry clone, and after the iPhone, it looked like an iOS clone. The proof that Android used to look like a BlackBerry clone is a photo of a prototype Android device, sent to Gizmodo by an anonymous source. Gizmodo published this photo December 17, 2007.
This photo is invoked very often in online discussions about iOs vs. Android, a discussion we see popping up more and more due to the various legal battles between Apple, Microsoft, and Oracle and one side, and Google and the various Android device makers on the other. However, I always recalled seeing a video where alongside the BlackBerry-esque prototype, Google also showed off a device with a full touch screen.
As it turns out, my memory isn’t playing tricks on me. We’re talking November 12 2007, and Google released the fist SDK for Android. Other than the keyboard-driven BlackBerry-esque style, the SDK also supported touch screens just fine. And, just as I remembered, Google showed off a reference design with a full touch screen (and, by the looks of it, it’s capacitive) – looking suspiciously similar to the HTC Dream, the first Android device – including gestures and flicks.
Both devices were clearly far from ready; both UIs are very sparse and limited, and seem to lack many of the things we take for granted today. For instance, the browser on the touch screen device doesn’t have pinch-to-zoom, which, reportedly, wasn’t enabled in Android because Apple asked Google not to.
The original video in which the touch screen reference design was showed off:
And here are a few screengrabs (taken by Engadget) from the video:
The interesting thing here is that the release of the SDK with support for touch and large screens, as well as the release of this video and hardware reference design took place one month before the infamous photograph of the BlackBerry-esque device. This means that Google wasn’t working with just one prototype, but several, which really shouldn’t be a surprise at all, if you think about what Google wanted Android to be.
Android was never intended to run on just one form factor. Android runs on everything from candybar touch screen phones to qwerty-phones, and everything in between. Heck, there was a race to get Android running on laptops, and even before Android was well and ready for it, it was dumped on tablets.
In other words, unlike iOS, Android was built to be flexible, and run on many sorts of devices, with different screen sizes and form factors. Hence, it is only natural that during its development, Google used various different form factors to test Android on – the first SDK release, as well as the first promotional videos which coincided with said SDK release demonstrate Android was being prepped to run on several form factors.
Now, does this mean that the iPhone had zero influence on Android’s early development? Of course not. Like the iPhone itself was standing on the shoulders of giants (iPhone to PalmOS: hi daddy!), Android stood on the shoulders of giants as well. However, unlike what has already become an accepted truth for some, the infamous photograph of a prototype Android device was not the prototype Android device. In fact, Google was working on touch screen devices alongside that infamous BlackBerry-like device, and the evidence for that is out there, for everyone to see.
Development on Android started in 2003, while development on the iPhone started in 2005. Since both were developed in roughly the same time frame, it’s not entirely coincidental that there’s resemblance between the two platforms. This actually happens all the time in the technology world, as explained by John Carmack.
“Patents are usually discussed in the context of someone “stealing” an idea from the long suffering lone inventor that devoted his life to creating this one brilliant idea, blah blah blah. But in the majority of cases in software, patents effect independent invention,” Carmack wrote on Slashdot, “Get a dozen sharp programmers together, give them all a hard problem to work on, and a bunch of them will come up with solutions that would probably be patentable, and be similar enough that the first programmer to file the patent could sue the others for patent infringement.”
To answer the question posed in the headline: yes, a prototype Android device looked like a BlackBerry phone. However, at least one other prototype Android device from the same time frame did not (and it wouldn’t surprise me if Google was testing Android on several more prototypes with different form factors). On top of that, the SDK from that exact same time frame also included support for large touch screens. In other words, the argument is invalid.