A brief history of Android, the world's most popular mobile OS

Google’s Android operating system dominates the mobile market. But it has a major problem; fragmentation.

Person holding a Google-branded Android smartphone
Photo by Daniel Romero / Unsplash

During it's meteoritic rise throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, there was one issue gathering up momentum that was threatening to destabilise Android's growth.

This story was written in 2014. It covers Android's formative years and the beginnings of the fragmentation issue that was going to cause problems for Google.

The Rise of Android

We all have experience with operating system (OS) updates and know, roughly, how it works. The software manufacturer decides they want to add new features and performance tweaks.

When these OS updates happen on desktop computers and laptops they tend to follow Microsoft's lead with Windows – a new version roughly every 3 years. When Apple created the iPhone they established an entirely new sector – smartphones – and with that they set the gold standard for product releases in mobile – a new product would appear once a year – around early Autumn, with a software update in tow.

When Android entered the game, Google, to a large extent, followed the template laid out by Apple, although with a very important difference – they would not manufacturer their own hardware like Apple.

Android was different to Apple's iOS in another important way, iOS was propriety to Apple, whereas Google's Android was open source – meaning that anyone can edit and develop it, much in the same vein as their popular browser – Chrome, which is based off the open source Chromium project.

Android's open source beginnings make it more flexible and customisable, often noted to be one of Android's key features. With that in mind Google would release a new version of Android annually, before passing it onto Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs).

However, phone manufacturers opted not to just put the base Android version straight onto devices, but would instead customise the software as a differentiator for their device, giving more options for Android devices in the market.

Notable, and extremely successful, examples of this are Samsung's Touchwiz and HTC's Sense. As each new version of Android was fed to OEMs, they would begin compiling their own Android build to put out onto their devices.


Understandably, for expensive hardware, consumers expect software updates over a product's useful lifetime, and this was where the problem began. When an OEM made a new device with the latest version of Android they could put it into production relatively quickly.

However, ensuring backwards compatibility with older devices, with different hardware configurations meant having to spend large amounts of time developing for the older devices and multiple configurations before the updates could even be scheduled.

This time delay would be further compounded by network operators who also wanted to shoehorn their own customisations, apps and boot animations, along with more testing before releasing the OS update to consumers.

That is – if you were lucky enough to have a device which your manufacturer had decided was worthy or compatible with the update. This started leaving many devices on old outdated versions of Android for long periods of time, sometimes over a year from Google's update release to OEMs, or even just stuck at their current OS revision.

This would mean that you would not get any Google app updates including Gmail, Maps, Chrome – if your device didn't get forced into using a OEM web browser, and neither would you get new features on your, potentially only year old phone.

This was the beginning of Android's fragmentation issue – where different devices, or even the same device on another network, would end up with a different revision of Android and its latest features.

This was creating some doubt in consumer's minds about purchasing an Android device – even OEM flagship devices aren't immune to this issue (see Samsung Galaxy S III which, depending on a number of factors, can still be found on Android 4.1.3 – at this point nearly two years old, despite over 50 million units being sold).

Why – they would ask – should I spend money on this phone when the phone could be rendered out of date next month if my OEM decides not to support the next OS update? And rightly so.


Google took action on this problem in a number of ways. The first was to create the 'Nexus' line of devices, including phones and tablets, running Android but manufactured by outside partners.

Supposedly these were developer devices, however, as they ran a native version of Android with no manufacturer or operator tweaks, for those wanting an unadulterated version of Android these were the devices to get. In addition to this as they were Google device they were guaranteed to be first in the update cycle.

Although the Nexus line was a success and arguably was hugely successful as a means to build a loyalist Android fan base, as one of Android's strengths was its ability to offer many options of devices, this wasn't enough to avoid fragmentation.

Google focused some of its efforts into separating out features and apps from the core OS. They would extract certain apps, like Gmail, the Google Camera app, Google Drive and others, and put them onto the Google Play Store.

This meant that not only could any device now run the Google apps, if they didn't already, but also meant that they were freed from the OS update cycle – they could now be updated whenever Google wanted to, which turns out to frequently be a Wednesday (poaching another Tech tradition from Microsoft's Patch Tuesday).

While it was useful to get the Google Apps from the Play store, Google then further separated the OS from the features by adding Google Play Services to the Play Store. Play Services is the way that your device's features operate – like cloud services, Location, Google services, Accounts etc.

By separating out this feature Google can now update most of the important customer-facing features of the OS, without having to wait until they release the latest OS revision. It also allows for any Android Device running Android 2.2 and up to receive these features.

Using the Play Store as a means to update core features, without OS updates, begs the question – what does an OS update now do? There are two primary areas that OS updates now target; performance improvements and OS design.

All of this, of course, ends up at the announcement of Google's latest Android release – currently named Android L – although its fair game that to assume this will later gain a sugary snack based name, as we've seen through Android's history.

The biggest talking points of Android L so far have been Google's new design aesthetic – named Material – which for the first time since Android 4, Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), brings a fresh approach to Android design.

Although there are many performance improvements in this latest release – one of the most notable is the way Google is tackling battery life on Android devices – switching to a new runtime for the software, and under Project Volta, aiming to improve the efficiency of apps for Android, leading to an increase in battery life.