More on Android’s early days

As I already said yesterday – a bit colourful to get me point across – this older article of mine has proven not to be as accurate as I thought it was, in light of a heap of new information. I want to offer some more background to all this.

Thanks to the Oracle v. Google court case, we’re treated to a fascinating and rare insight into the earlier days of Android development. Included in all this is a bunch of screenshots of early pre-release versions of Android, which show an interface that’s clearly focussed on QWERTY, BlackBerry-like devices, with a smaller screen. In addition, renders of an early Google phone.

I simply underestimated just how much Android has changed between the time of those screenshots and the release of the G1 – it’s hard, if not impossible, to argue that the release of the iPhone, which took place in between those two points in time, had no influence on Android. As such, I never actually did so – this is what I wrote in that article:

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.

All I wanted to express yesterday was this: I underestimated just how large the influence has been. These new screenshots constitute new information, and since that article of mine is being quoted all over the place in discussion threads, I feel the responsibility to address this new information.

My original point still stands: Android was designed, from the get go, to be a versatile platform, capable of running on many different kinds of devices. It made perfect sense for early Android to focus on device form factors that were popular at the time, without actually mandating any specific form factor. In fact, at that time, Google had Android running on three different form factors (a detail certain folk happily omit), obviously focussing on the most popular form factor at the time.

When the preferred form factor changed (thanks to the iPhone), Android adapted – just as it was designed to do – and started focussing more and more on just touchscreen support, a process it’s still busy completing. The Android specifications from that time illustrate this perfectly:

Touchscreens will be supported. However, the Product was designed with the presence of discrete physical buttons as an assumption, therefore a touchscreen cannot completely replace physical buttons.

Back to my original article:

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.

This all is still very much true, and in fact, has only been reinforced. The usual suspects omit the information about how Android clearly supported multiple form factors from the very beginning, as they are trying to construct an alternate reality where Android was 100% strictly a BlackBerry clone (despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary) until the iPhone was released, after which Android copied the iPhone in its entirety.

All the information we had, and the new information from this week, paint a very clear picture: Android was designed from the very beginning to support multiple form factors, including touchscreen devices. Since BlackBerry-like devices were popular at the time, this is what Android focussed on during its earlier development. When the iPhone came out, the landscape changed, and Android responded by focussing more on its touchscreen support.

I underestimated just how much Android focussed on the BlackBerry form factor during its early days, and as such, I underestimated the influence the iPhone has had on Android’s development. Android’s big shift in form factor focus was caused by the iPhone, and I would say that’s a pretty big amount of influence.

Rests me to say that as far as I’m concerned, this subject has become quite stale. People with a proper sense of history know by now just how much the iPhone, too, builds on that which came before – most notably PalmOS, and to a lesser extent Windows Mobile PocketPC CE Second Edition Embedded Compact Standard XP RT – and that this is exactly how the industry is supposed to work. I’m happy Android adapted to the changes brought on by the iPhone, and I’m happy Apple is adopting features from Android.

Most of all, though, I’m happy that both platforms were able to stand on the shoulders of giants, building on two absolutely fantastic platforms, which were far, far ahead of their time. History is repeating itself, and we now have two hugely popular, very different platforms that serve the needs of so many people.

I just don’t care anymore. I love how much my parents love their iPhones and iPad, and I love my own SII running CM9/ICS. There’s something here for everybody, and let’s hope that, despite the efforts by Apple and Microsoft to hold this industry hostage, we will continue to be able to enjoy this much diversity.


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