15 years of Android: How Google’s OS spearheaded the rise of smartphones

The evolution of the world's most popular operating system

15 years of Android: How Google’s OS spearheaded the rise of smartphones

If we were to tell you that we’d be going over a brief history of terms like Jellybean, Donut and Nougat today, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a walkthrough of popular desserts. But like a classic Nolanesque switcheroo, we’re actually looking at the history of one of the most popular operating systems ever created – Android.

As the platform for smartphones and other devices completes 15 years since its first ever release in 2008, here’s a look at all the versions of the mobile OS from Android 1 all the way to Android 14. We’ll be going over major changes, design evolution, and other aspects that shaped Android into the platform it is today. Let’s take it from the very beginning!

Android 1.0 (2008)

The first-ever Android operating system was released on September 23, 2008 with the HTC Dream, and unsurprisingly, it was a far cry from the Android versions of today. It had no widgets, no Material Design, and no support either for on-screen buttons or keyboards.

Users were instead using the Android Market (a precursor to the Play Store) and still had to use physical keyboards, which existed via slide-out-design and swivel-design smartphones. Other basics included a camera with no manual control, Google Maps and Google Sync, along with essentials like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, as well as a Voice Dialer.

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Android 1.0 was so rudimentary, that it didn’t even have a dessert codename yet, and instead would go on to popularly be referred to as Android Alpha, the very first version of the series, which would become the base for future development.

Android 1.1 (2009)

A small update to the original Android release, Android 1.1 majorly fixed bugs with the HTC Dream and added iterative features like the ability to save attachments in messages, hide the dialer during calls, and see business reviews on Google Maps.

Still lacking a dessert name, Android 1.1 would be known as Android Beta, a follow-up to the Alpha version from a year ago. However, it would be the last niche version of the OS as Android would really blow up with its next version.

15 years of Android: How Google’s OS spearheaded the rise of smartphones

Android Cupcake (2009)

Android Cupcake was a landmark release for the OS even though it was the third iteration in the series. It was the first Android version to go somewhat mainstream, and also the first to use Android’s signature alphabetical dessert names. Cupcake would add several features to the operating system, some of which are Android staples even today.

These include widgets, virtual keyboards (including third-party ones) and native video recording and playback. Those surfing the web on their phones could also use copy and paste features within the browser, which still wasn’t named Chrome. Auto-rotate options and animated transitions between screens were also introduced.

Android Donut (2009)

Launched in the same year, Android Donut (Android 1.6) would again, be more of an improvement over Android Cupcake. While users did not get any major additions, they did get more features for the apps they already had. For instance, the camera app was now faster, and better integrated with the gallery app, which allowed the deletion of multiple pictures at once.

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The support for WVGA screen resolutions was also a step towards the higher-resolution screens of today. But one of the more underrated additions with Android Donut was the support for CDMA mobile networks, which really helped make Android popular as networks like Verizon (US) could now expand to Android smartphones, which would soon compete with Apple’s iPhones.

Android Éclair (2009)

Android Éclair started as another small update to the series, but somewhere along the line, developers realized that not every Android version needed a new name and identity. As a result, Android Éclair would have several versions, from Android 2.0 to Android 2.0.1, to finally Android 2.1.

Éclair would also power Google’s first ever Nexus series phone – the Nexus One, which was made in collaboration with HTC. The phone was considered by many to be a direct successor to the HTC Dream.

Apart from bug fixes and general optimisations, Éclair expanded on capabilities like account support, allowing the same phone to now host multiple user accounts. Users could now also search within their SMS and MMS libraries, and automatically delete the oldest messages when size limits were reached. The typing speed on on-screen keyboards was improved, and phones now supported Bluetooth 2.1 for wireless connections and HTML5 for browsing. Live wallpapers, one of Android’s defining visual elements in the years to come, were also introduced with Éclair.

Android Froyo (2010)

With Android Froyo, the operating system added features like push notifications, USB tethering, and Wi-Fi hotspot, which would allow users to share their mobile data connections. The Android Market also now supported automatic updates for apps. Of course, there were also optimisations done for faster performance across the device, something that continued as smartphone hardware also became more powerful, capable of more computations than ever.

ALSO READ: How to generate AI images straight from your keyboard on any Android smartphone

Froyo also took the Android outside the confines of the phone. Users could now connect their phones to Bluetooth enabled docks on their desk, or even in their vehicles. Adobe Flash support was added, along with the ability to install apps directly to external storage. Most importantly, with support for high PPI displays, Android would finally be able to power phones with HD+ screens, the 720p displays that even power some entry-level phones today.

Android Gingerbread (2010)

The key improvements Android Gingerbread brought to phones included NFC support, a built-in download manager, more seamless copy-pasting across the OS by long pressing on words and support for newer sensors like gyroscopes (sensors that track movement) and barometers (sensors that track atmospheric pressure).

ALSO READ: Android gets a logo makeover and several new features: Here’s what you need to know

That’s not it, Gingerbread also brought support for multiple cameras for the first time, which meant phones with a front camera could now detect two cameras and switch between them as and when required, for taking pictures or for video calls. Gingerbread was also the first Android version to feature an easter-egg in the settings.

The built-in sensors, especially the gyroscope, would go on to change how games are played, as users could use motion control while driving in-game cars or controlling characters. Gingerbread would also feature a built-in power management feature that could intelligently freeze app-activity in the background when not in use to save power.

Android Honeycomb (2011)

Probably the Android version most people don’t know a lot about, Android Honeycomb was the only version of the operating system that was designed solely for tablets. Honeycomb included some major UI changes that were added to make the most of the larger screens on tablets. These included a redesigned keyboard, browser tabs, and the classic three-button layout (home, back and recents) which would go on to become an Android staple.

Apart from these UI changes, Honeycomb also added support for multi-core processors, which was a big step in making Android phones both powerful and efficient at the same time. With Honeycomb versions 3.1 and 3.2, the OS would also add the ability to plug in USB-powered devices (USB OTG) including external keyboards, joysticks and gamepads. Users could also now resize home widgets on their tablets.

ALSO READ: 10 hacks to free up storage on your Android phone

While most of Honeycomb’s features wouldn’t make it to the next Android version, developed mainly for smartphones again, some features would stick. The on-screen navigation buttons, recents panel, copy paste gestures and support for more dynamic processors are just some of these.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich (2011)

The template for new Android versions was now set, and with every version moving forward, we would see more UI features, alongside under-the-hood performance improvements.

With Ice Cream Sandwich, popularly known as simply ICS, we would get folder support on the home screen with drag-and-drop abilities, pinch-to-zoom across supported apps like photo galleries, and a screenshot feature that could be triggered by holding down the volume down and power keys at the same time.

Face unlock was also added, and used the front camera to recognise users and bypass their lock screens. In the recent apps screen, users could simply swipe away apps to close them. To-end devices would also get the ability to record Full HD (1080p) videos.

Android Jelly Bean (2012)

With Jelly Bean, Android had now developed a yearly cycle, and instead of erratic updates, users could now expect larger Android version updates or system updates once a year, while smaller updates often came out in a span of weeks or months. Android Jelly Bean improved on adding more polish to the existing OS, and some neat features.

ALSO READ: What does rooting an Android smartphone mean?

These included the Google Now cards which delivered helpful information right on the home screen. Other features included the ability to place widgets on your lock screen and the first ever Android Quick Settings panel which could be pulled down from the top of the UI.

Google also unified all of its apps under the Google Play banner in 2012. The Android Market had now become the Google Play Store, while other Google apps also had similar changes.

Android KitKat (2013)

With Android KitKat, the OS got the ability to trigger Google by simply saying “Ok Google”. However, this was limited to only when the phone was on the home screen or in the Google app. Google now also had its own launcher dubbed Google Launcher which came pre-installed on phones like the Nexus 5 and included a full page of Google’s services and information on the left of the home screen.

Additions included a feature-packed clock app which now had world clock, stopwatch and timer abilities, and support for wireless printing. Oh yes, Android also finally had native emoji support. However, with so many new UI elements gathered over the years, the UI needed something more unifying, and that’s where the next update came in.

15 years of Android: How Google’s OS spearheaded the rise of smartphones

Android Lollipop (2014)

Nearly a decade later, Android Lollipop is still considered the biggest Android update ever. Setting the base for the visual elements of Android till date, Lollipop introduced ‘Material design’ a design language that made elements across the UI including everything from app icons to toggles flatter and more uniform, giving the whole interface a well put together look-and-feel.

ALSO READ: How to format an Android phone

New features included support for more powerful 64-bit CPUs, a new widget-free lock screen design, a new notification tray integrated with the quick settings, audio input and output through USB devices, along with support for multiple SIM cards on the same device. HD voice calls and Wi-Fi calling also made communication easier.

Android Marshmallow (2015)

Android Marshmallow felt like a small update compared to the last. It brought features like Google Now on Tap that would run a quick scan of whatever was on the screen to give relevant information on a card on the bottom. Support for fingerprint readers also allowed phones to launch with built-in capacitive fingerprint readers for authentication. The support for USB-C ports and devices would also open up Android to many more accessories in future years.

Android Nougat (2016)

With material design solidifying the signature Android look, Android Nougat focussed on adding features that implemented the new design language right from the get-go. Everything from the new clear all apps button on the recents panel to the new split-screen mode and picture-in-picture (PiP) mode for multitasking all felt more consistent with design.

15 years of Android: How Google’s OS spearheaded the rise of smartphones

A new restart option was also added to the power menu, and Android could now recognise many more gestures on the home screen. Google also launched the first ever Pixel phone with Android Nougat. A departure from the Nexus lineup which was manufactured by other brands like HTC and LG, the Pixel series was almost entirely made by Google.

Android Oreo (2017)

What can be considered as the biggest update for notifications on the OS, Android Oreo included notification channels which would group conversations and other kinds of notifications together and allow users to snooze them. With Project Treble, Android’s backend was now more modular and allowing OEMs to adopt newer Android versions with more ease for quicker updates.

Android Pie (2018)

Android Pie, the ninth Android version included a new gesture-based navigation system that included a single pill on the bottom of the screen instead of three buttons, along with a small back button. A new suggested reply feature, which was fairly accurate for quickly getting back to simpler messages straight from the notification panel, was also very useful.

With many other smaller changes, Android Pie finally felt like a big update. However, this would also be the last Android version to feature the iconic dessert names.

Android 10 (2019)

Android 10 further improved on the new gesture system introduced with Android Pie. Now, there was only one pill on the bottom, and the back button was gone in favour of inner swipes from the edges of the screen. Users could still revert to the older three-button layout, but the new gestures were here to stay.

ALSO READ: Android 10, 11 are more popular than Android 12: Here’s why

A new per-app permissions system also made it easier for users to control which aspects of their phone and data third-party apps had access to. These permissions could now be easily monitored and changed from the Settings app. Lastly, a device-wide ‘Dark Mode’ theme was also introduced, which was easier on the eyes at night.

Android 10 would also bring a slightly changed logo and new colours to the platform’s logo. Check it out in the video embedded above.

Android 11 (2020)

Coming into the COVID period, Android 11 didn’t add much to the OS in terms of features and almost no real visual changes. Largely focussing on improving permissions for privacy and security, users on Android 11 could now grant apps permissions on a single-use basis.

The system could now also revoke granted permissions from apps that weren’t opened frequently. Small features like a notification history that enabled checking on notifications that were swiped away, and a native screen-recorder app completed Android 11.

Android 12 (2021)

The first real change to Android’s visuals came with the new Material You design language in Android 12. Largely using the template of Material Design, Material You incorporated colours that could be either specified or dynamically picked from your wallpaper, giving accents across the UI a unique touch. AI features could also now work completely offline.

15 years of Android: How Google’s OS spearheaded the rise of smartphones

Android 13 (2022)

Made largely for foldables and tablets, which had seen a post-COVID resurgence, Android 13 saw some major changes for these form factors, including better split-screen multitasking and a new ChromeOS-style desktop taskbar. However, for users still on conventional smartphones, Android 13 didn’t feel very new at all, except for small additions like an expanded clipboard system or a QR-code scanning tile in the Quick Settings panel.

Android 14 (2023)

Android’s latest version, Android 14 is yet to come to many phones and tablets, but it still feels like a rather minor update, particularly because of Google’s focus on refining core elements more than adding flashy new features.

While you do have features like more lock screen customisations and a dedicated new Privacy Centre, Android 14 may not immediately look distinguishably different from other recent versions. You can check out our deeper look at what to expect in Android 14 while you wait for your upgrade.

That wraps our mini history lesson of Android, and its progress over the last 15 years. While there are key areas where Android still doesn’t beat rival iOS, it is an operating system that has changed how we use smartphones and other consumer tech over the years, standing tall where other players like Windows Phone have failed. It remains the most used operating system of the world across any device, beating Windows, iOS, macOS and even Google’s own ChromeOS.

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