The moment Google had to restart the project "Android"
Google had started on a secret mobile project when Apple, announced the iPhone...
Google had started on a secret mobile project when Apple, announced the iPhone. In 2005, on Google’s sprawling, college-like campus, the most secret and ambitious of many, many teams was Google’s own smartphone effort—the Android project. Tucked in a first-floor corner of Google’s Building 44, surrounded by Google ad reps, its four dozen engineers thought that they were on track to deliver a revolutionary device that would change the mobile phone industry forever.
By January 2007, they’d all worked sixty-to-eighty-hour weeks for fifteen months—some for more than two years—writing and testing code, negotiating software licenses, and flying all over the world to find the right parts, suppliers, and manufacturers. They had been working with prototypes for six months and had planned a launch by the end of the year... until Jobs took the stage to unveil the iPhone.For most of Silicon Valley—including most of Google—the iPhone’s unveiling on January 9, 2007 was something to celebrate. Jobs had once again done the impossible. But for the Google Android team, the iPhone was a kick in the stomach. Back then, Microsoft was still the richest and most powerful technology company in the world, and it was finally getting traction with its Windows CE mobile phones and software. Windows CE smartphones were still a niche market, but if consumers took to the platform en masse as they did later with the iPhone, Google’s entire business could be in jeopardy. This wasn't an exaggeration. Back then, Microsoft and Google were in the midst of a nasty battle of their own for dominance in search, and for top dog in the tech world. After two decades of being the first-choice workplace of top engineering talent, Microsoft was now losing many of those battles to Google. Chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer had made it clear they took Google’s challenge personally. Gates seemed particularly affected by it. Once or twice he made fun of the way Page and his Google co-founder Sergey Brin dressed. He said their search engine’s popularity was “a fad.” Then, in the same breath he would issue the ultimate compliment saying that of all his competitors over the years Google was the most like Microsoft.
Google executives were convinced that if Windows on mobile devices caught on, Microsoft would interfere with users’ access to Google search on those devices in favor of its own search engine. The U.S. government’s successful antitrust trial against Microsoft in the 1990's made it difficult for the company to use its monopoly on desktops and laptops to bully competitors. It could not, for example, make Microsoft’s the default search engine in Windows without giving users a choice between its search engine and those from Google, Yahoo, and others.On the day Jobs announced the iPhone, the director of the Android team, Andy Rubin, was six hundred miles away in Las Vegas, on his way to a meeting with one of the myriad handset makers and carriers that descend on the city for the Consumer Electronics Show. He reacted exactly as DeSalvo predicted. Rubin was so astonished by what Jobs was unveiling that, on his way to a meeting, he had his driver pull over so that he could finish watching the webcast.
What the Android team had been working on, a phone code-named Sooner, sported software that was arguably more revolutionary than what had just been revealed in the iPhone. In addition to having a full Internet browser, and running all of Google’s great web applications, such as search, Maps, and YouTube, the software was designed not just to run on Sooner, but on any smartphone, tablet, or other portable device not yet conceived. It would never need to be tethered to a laptop or desktop. It would allow multiple applications to run at the same time, and it would easily connect to an online store of other applications that Google would seed and encourage. By contrast, the iPhone needed to connect to iTunes regularly, it wouldn't run more than one application at a time, and in the beginning it had no plans to allow anything resembling an application store.
However, the Sooner phone was ugly. It looked like a Black-Berry, with a traditional keyboard and a small screen that wasn't touch-enabled. Rubin and his team, along with partners HTC and T-Mobile, believed consumers would care more about the great software it contained than its looks. This was conventional wisdom back then.
The iPhone, in contrast, was not only cool looking, but it used those cool looks to create entirely new ways to interact with a phone—ways that Android engineers either hadn’t thought possible or had considered too risky. By using a virtual keyboard and replacing most real buttons with software-generated buttons on a big touchscreen, every application could now have its own unique set of controls. Play, Pause, and Stop buttons only appeared if you were listening to music or watching video. When you went to type a web address into the browser, the keyboard appeared, but it disappeared when you hit Enter. Without the physical keyboard taking up half the phone, the iPhone had a screen twice the size of virtually every other phone on the market. It all worked the same way whether the user held the phone in portrait or landscape mode. Apple had installed an accelerometer to use gravity to tell the phone how to orient the screen.
At the very least, Jobs had come up with a new way of interacting with a device— with a finger instead of a stylus or dedicated buttons—and likely a lot more. “We knew that Apple was going to announce a phone. Everyone knew that. We just didn't think it would be that good,” said Ethan Beard, one of Android’s early business development executives.
Within weeks the Android team had completely reconfigured its objectives. A phone with a touchscreen, code-named Dream, that had been in the early stages of development, became the focus. Its launch was pushed out a year until fall 2008. Engineers started drilling into it all the things the iPhone didn’t do to differentiate their phone when launch day did occur. Erick Tseng, then Android’s project manager, remembers suddenly feeling the nervous excitement of a pending public performance. Tseng had joined Google the year before out of Stanford business school after Eric Schmidt, himself, sold him on the promise of Android.
“I never got the feeling that we should scrap what we were doing—that the iPhone meant game over. But a bar had been set, and whatever we decided to launch, we wanted to make sure that it cleared the bar.”
Special thanks to Fred Vogelstein