How Android conquered the mobile world in just three years

The advent of the Droid seen by many as turning point for Google in mobile market

It's easy to forget that not so long ago, no one was sure if Android would ever be relevant.

After all, the Android explosion has really only erupted over the past year, roughly two years after Android made its debut in the fall of 2007.  Since January alone, Android has doubled its total market share in the mobile operating system market, and devices based on Android accounted for a whopping 44% of smartphones purchased in the third quarter of 2010, according to research firm ChangeWave.  Research firm Gartner has projected that by the end of the year sales of Android devices will exceed those based on the BlackBerry OS and the iPhone OS, meaning that Android will trail only Symbian as the world's most-used mobile operating system.

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But for the first two years of its existence, Android had a tough time making major waves.  The first device to be based on Android, T-Mobile's HTC G1, made its debut in the fall of 2008 and was mostly overshadowed by more high-profile smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and the BlackBerry Storm.  Morgan Slain, the CEO of mobile applications developer SplashData, says that this lack of initial success led a lot of application developers to hesitate before investing too many resources in developing for the platform, despite the fact that it was free and open source.

"We started early doing Android development but at first it was all hype and no sales," he says.  "It was a new platform for us.  It seemed to have a lot of potential but it was frustrating that there weren't any sales coming in for us."

Scott Webster, who has been covering Android for the past three year as one of the founders of the popular Android Guys blog, says he got a similar vibe from developers he talked to during Android's early years.

A history of Android

"The initial buzz from developers was, 'We don't know what this is yet,'" he says.  "There was a huge wait-and-see approach."

Google plugged a large chunk of cash into bringing application developers on board with Android by offering a total of $10 million in prizes as part of its Android Developer Challenge during Android's initial launch.  Slain says that while his company and many others entered the challenge, they were still greatly unsure of Android's long-term potential since the operating system wasn't yet available on any marquee devices and there was a sense that Android was "all buzz" without anything to back it up.

That's not to say that Android as a development platform was not enticing.  Since Android is a Linux platform that uses Java as its programming language, most software developers on the market found that writing programs for the operating system was a breeze.  Google also went out of its way to make posting a new application on the Android Market a snap, as the company does not screen applications sent to the store and will only remove them if it has received legitimate customer complaints.

"Google did a lot of things right when it designed Android," says IDC analyst Steve Drake.  "They made it open, they made it very clean, they tried to keep it simple in terms of its code and offerings and they moved very quickly to make sure each new version of the OS contained real improvements."

So the operating system itself was fine.  Now all it needed was a device to drive popularity.

Enter the Droid

Android got its big break last November with the release of the Motorola Droid on the Verizon network.  The Droid's release was important because it marked the first time that an Android-based device was being supported by either of the nation's two largest wireless carriers.  Verizon decided to aggressively market the Droid as a better alternative to the Apple iPhone by pointing out that the Droid had a physical keyboard and the ability to run simultaneous applications.  And while the Droid didn't sell as many units as the iPhone, it did sell well over 1 million, thus putting Android firmly on the mobile operating system map.

Slain says that the impact of the Droid on his company's sales was immediate and significant.

"We noticed a difference literally overnight," he says. "And ever since the Droid launch it's been a consistently strong platform."

Paul Carton, the vice president of research at ChangeWave, notes that interest in Motorola products among corporate users doubled between August 2009 and November 2009, as the number of corporate users surveyed by ChangeWave who planned to buy Motorola products surged from 5% to 10% over the span of three months.

"We were surprised by the monstrous leap in Motorola interest last year," Carton says.  "Do you see anything else that looks like that a year ago?  It's all because of Android."

Verizon decided to apply the "Droid" brand to several other Android phones on its network, including the HTC Droid Incredible, the Motorola Droid X and the Motorola Droid Pro.  Couple this with the fact that the first WiMAX-based phone available in the United States was also based on Android and you have several high-profile devices that have made Android a national brand.  And what's more, people seem to be very pleased with Android devices as 67% of Android users surveyed by ChangeWave said they were very satisfied with the operating system, second only to the 71% of iPhone users who said they were satisfied with the iPhone OS.

Looking ahead, it seems that Android will try to make headway into the rapidly growing market for tablet computers that is currently being dominated by Apple's iPad.  Although Android has already been used as the operating system for tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy, Google is working on a new version of the software that will be optimized for large-screen devices in ways that current versions aren't.  Webster says it will be interesting to see how much Google tinkers with Android to make it a better fit for tablets.

"Will they change the experience for swiping and for dragging and dropping?" he wonders.  "We'll have to wait until next year, though, because it could be six months before we see tablet optimization for Android."

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