The moment when Android had to start again

Here’s a pretty interesting story from The Atlantic (no, me neither) with some revelations from Chris DeSalvo. He worked with Andy Rubin at Danger before switching to Google to work on Android. It was 2005 and Android was in the early stages, but by January 2007 and – after pulling 60-80 hour weeks – they were prepping for a launch the same year.

Then the iPhone was unveiled.

The moment when Android had to start again

As a consumer I was blown away. I wanted one immediately. But as a Google engineer, I thought ‘We’re going to have to start over.’

..said DeSalvo.

What we had suddenly looked just so . . . nineties. It’s just one of those things that are obvious when you see it.

Two years earlier Google were struggling to get any kind of hold in mobile. The had resistance from network operators who weren’t keen on releasing their grip on the customer. Google tried to initially just get Google Search added to Vodafone handsets, but Vodafone wanted their own products prioritizing in search results. All phones were different too, with no real standards. It led to most developers losing money, and Google had to painfully write each and every app for several different handsets..

We had a closet full of over 100 phones [that we were developing software for], and we were building our software pretty much one device at a time.

At the time Microsoft was poised to grab a bigger market, and if they did gain market dominance then Google would be in serious trouble. Google were also worried that Microsoft made it difficult to use Google search and forced a Microsoft search engine on the Windows Mobile Pocket PC’s and Smartphones, people would just switch to a Microsoft search engine on their other devices too. That, if it happened in bigger numbers, would kill Google dead.

The iPhone changed everything. Andy Rubin, the director of the Android team was in Las Vegas and attending CES to drum up business but asked the driver of his car to pull over when he saw Steve Jobs showing the iPhone. Speaking of the Android handset they’d been working on, code-named “Sooner”, his reaction was pretty revealing..

Holy crap. I guess we’re not going to ship that phone.

The Android phone didn’t match the iPhone, but they knew that the OS performed well. It ran all of the Google apps, multi-tasked and the OS could be deployed on other handsets. However, it was trapped inside of their “Sooner” device, which lacked a touchscreen and resembled a BlackBerry…

The moment when Android had to start again

Android had to totally re-think. Their device played it safe, emulating a BlackBerry design and bringing a traditional keyboard for entering data. The iPhone, with an on-screen keyboard and context-aware buttons, did away with this physical data entry. In the end Android played it safe and kept a keyboard in the G1, aka the HTC Dream that we reported on in 2008. However it did have a larger touch-screen and marked the start of the Android adventure.

The moment when Android had to start again