The smartphone has come a long way since the first iPhone was launched in 2007, and while Apple’s iOS is arguably the world’s first smartphone operating system, there’s no denying that Google’s Android is by far the most popular. Of course, “Android” as a whole hasn’t stayed the same over the years — it has evolved significantly since its inception, first being released on a HTC-made T-Mobile device back in 2008. Some might not know, however, that Android’s history dates back before it was available on smartphones.
In fact, Android was first created in 2003 by Andy Rubin, who first started developing the OS for digital cameras. Soon, he realized that the market for digital camera operating systems perhaps wasn’t all that big, and Android, Inc. diverted its attention toward smartphones.
It wasn’t until 2005 that Google purchased Android, Inc., and while not much about Android was known at the time, many took it as a signal that Google would use the platform to enter the phone business. Eventually, Google did enter the smartphone business — but not as a hardware manufacturer. Instead, it marketed Android to other manufacturers, first catching the eye of HTC, who used the platform for the first Android phone, the HTC Dream.
Beginning with that lowly operating system running on the HTC Dream, lets look at the versions of Android we’ve seen since.
Android 1.0 — Android Market, widgets, and notifications (2008)
Android 1.0 was obviously far less developed than the operating system we know and love today, but there are a few similarities. For example, most agreed that Android pretty much nailed how to deal with notifications, and it included the pull-down notification window that blew the notification system in iOS out of the water.
Another groundbreaking innovation in Android is the Google Play Store, which, at the time, was called the Market. While Apple beat it to the punch by launching the App Store on the iPhone a few months earlier, the fact is that together they kickstarted the idea of a centralized place to get all your apps — something that’s hard to imagine not having now.
Apart from the Market, Android 1.0 also boasted the ability to use home screen widgets, a feature that iOS did not have. In fact, iOS still doesn’t let you put widgets on your home screen. Unfortunately, developers couldn’t create their own widgets at the time. Now, however, that’s changed. Last but not least, the first version of Android had deep integration with Gmail, a service that had already taken off at the time.
Android 1.5 Cupcake — Third-party widgets, on-screen keyboard, and a sugary name (2009)
The first major update to Android not only got a new version number, but it was the first to use Google’s naming scheme too. Cupcake was significant for a number of reasons, but the most important is probably that it was the first version of Android to have an on-screen keyboard — before that, manufacturers had to include physical keyboards on their devices.
Next up is widgets. While widgets were supported in earlier versions of Android, third-party developers couldn’t create and implement then. Starting with Cupcake, Google opened the widgets SDK to third-party developers, which was an important move. Now, many developers bundle at least one widget with their app.
Can you imagine a world without video? Before Cupcake, Android did not support video capture, so users with earlier versions of Android could only capture photos. That all (thankfully) changed with Cupcake.
Android 1.6 Donut — CDMA, quick search box, and different screen sizes (2009)
Android Donut gave users a pretty big update — much bigger of an update than the 0.1 version number increase suggests. For example, Donut brought Android to millions of people by adding support for CDMA networks such as Verizon, Sprint, and a number of big networks in Asia.
Donut was really targeted at making Android more user-friendly, but some of the biggest updates were under the hood. For example, Donut was the first version of Android to support different screen sizes, meaning that manufacturers could create devices with the display sizes they wanted and still run Android.
Back to user-friendliness, though. Donut was the first version of Android to include what’s now considered an Android staple — the quick search box. This basically allowed users to quickly search the web, local files, contacts, and more directly from the home screen without having to open any apps.
Donut also introduced a few aesthetic changes to Android, such as a redesigned Android Market, which offered more curation over top free and paid apps.
Android 2.0 Eclair — Google Maps navigation, HTML5 browser support, and new lock screen (2009)
While the updates to Android so far were important, they were still incremental refinements of the same operating system. Around a year after Android was first released, Android 2.0 Eclair made its debut, bringing some massive changes to the operating system, many of which are still around today.
Eclair was the first device to feature Google Maps navigation, for instance, kicking off what soon became the death of the in-car GPS unit. While Maps has changed a lot since then, a few important features showed up in the service that are still present today, such as turn-by-turn navigation and voice guidance. There were turn-by-turn navigation apps at that time, but they were expensive, meaning Google’s move to offer Maps for free was pretty disruptive.
The internet browser in Android Eclair also got revamped for the new operating system. Google added HTML5 support to the browser and the ability to play videos, putting Eclair on par with the ultimate mobile internet machine at the time — aka the iPhone.
Last but not least was the lock-screen, which got a major refresh and allowed users to swipe to unlock — just like on the iPhone. From the lock screen, users could also change the phone’s mute mode.
Android 2.2 Froyo (2010)
Android Froyo was first released in 2010, and proved why it was an advantage to have a Nexus phone. The Nexus One, which was the first Nexus phone to be released, was also the first phone to get the Android Froyo update.
Froyo was more aimed at refining the Android experience, offering users five home screen panels instead of three, and showing off a redesigned Gallery app.
There were, however, a few under-the-hood improvements. For example, Froyo was the first version of Android to bring mobile hotspot support. Users also finally got the PIN lock screen, which was perfect for those that didn’t really like the pattern lock screen that was previously offered in Android.
Android 2.3 Gingerbread (2010)
The Nexus program was finally coming into its own, and the release of Gingerbread confirmed that. Google chose the Samsung-built Nexus S for this one, however, a phone that was derived from Samsung’s highly-successful Galaxy S.
Gingerbread was another big Android refinement, and it saw a redesign of Android’s stock widgets and home screen.
Gingerbread also came with an improved keyboard, which offered new coloration for the keys, as well as improved multitouch support, which allowed users to press multiple keys to access a secondary keyboard.
Last but not least is that Gingerbread added support for the front-facing camera — what would us selfie-lovers do without that?!
Android 3.0 Honeycomb (2011)
Google had been making waves in the smartphone industry for a few years now, which made Honeycomb a very interesting release purely because it was targeted at tablets, It was even first showcased on a Motorola device that would eventually become the Xoom.
Still, Honeycomb provided a few design cues as to what would appear in future versions of Android. Instead of accenting the operating system with the classic green Android color, for example, Google switched to blue accents. On top of that, instead of users having to choose home screen widgets from a simple list, where they couldn’t see what the widgets looked like, previews were offered for individual widgets.
Perhaps the biggest move in Honeycomb was the fact that it removed the need for the physical button, Instead, the home, back, and menu buttons were all included in the software as virtual buttons, meaning they could be hidden or shown based on the application.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (2011)
The Nexus S was a great phone, but it wasn’t the be all and end all of Google’s partnership with Samsung. The two paired up once again for the release of the Galaxy Nexus, which showcased Ice Cream Sandwich, an operating system that brought many of Honeycomb’s features over to the smartphone.
For example, the operating system brought over the aforementioned virtual buttons, as well as the tweaked and refined interface that made use of the blue highlights.
Other small features, such as face unlock, data usage analysis, and new apps for mail and calendar, were also included in the update.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (2012)
Android Jelly Beam signaled a new era for the operating system, even if the OS seemed more or less the same as its predecessor. If you had dug a little deeper, you would have seen some very important changes.
The most important of these was by far Google Now, which could be accessed with a quick swipe from the home screen and brought information — i.e. calendar events, emails, weather reports — all to a single screen. The feature was really Google’s first major stab at a digital assistant, and it laid the groundwork for future versions of digital assistants, including Google’s new Google Assistant.
Apart from Google Now, a number of other important additions were implemented in Jelly Bean, such as Project Butter, which was aimed at drastically improving Android’s touch performance by tripling the headset’s buffering graphics. This eliminated a lot of the stutter in Android and made it a much smoother experience overall.
Refreshed font, expandable notifications, greater widget flexibility, and other features were also added in Jelly Bean, rending it one of the biggest updates to Android so far.
Android 4.4 KitKat (2013)
The launch of Android 4.4 KitKat coincided with the launch of the Nexus 5, and it came with a number of great features. For example, KitKat represented one of the biggest aesthetic changes to the operating system to date, modernizing the look of Android. The blue accents found in Ice Cream Sandwich and Jellybean were replaced with a more refined white accent, and a number of the stock apps that came with Android were redesigned to show lighter color schemes.
Apart from a new look, KitKat also brought things like the “Ok, Google” search command, which allowed the user to access Google Now at any time. It also brought a new phone dialer, full-screen apps, and a new Hangouts app, which offered SMS support along with support for the Hangouts messaging platform.
Android 5.0 Lollipop (2014)
Android Lollipop, which debuted alongside the Nexus 6,was the first to feature Google’s “Material Design” philosophy. The updates, however, weren’t purely aesthetic — the operating system also exhibited a few major updates under the hood.
Google replaced the aging Dalvik VM with Android Runtime, for example, which boasted ahead-of-time compilation. This essentially meant that part of the processing power required for apps could be conducted before said apps were ever opened. On top of that, we saw a number of notification upgrades, the addition of RAW image support, and a host of other refinements.
Android 5.0 also saw the addition of another version of Android, dubbed Android TV, which brought Android to the big screen and is still in use on plenty of TVs today.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow (2015)
Android Marshmallow brought about both design changes and those under the hood. Most notably, the app menu almost completely changed. Google used a white background instead of black, for instance, and added a search bar to help users quickly find the app they need.
Android Marshmallow also brought the addition of the memory manager, which allowed you to check the memory usage of any app used within the past 3, 6, 12, or 24 hours.
Next up are the volume controls. In Marshmallow, you’ll get access to a more comprehensive set of volume controls, allowing you to change the volume for the device, media, and alarms.
Security also got a pretty big boost within the operating system. Android officially supported fingerprint sensors beginning with Marshmallow, and permissions got a significant revamp. Instead of apps requesting all permissions upfront when downloaded, permissions are requested on a per-permission basis when they’re required.
Android 7.0 Nougat (2016)
And now we’re finally up to Google’s latest operating system, Android 7.0 Nougat. Perhaps the biggest change to Android in Nougat is that Google Now has been replaced with the newfangled Google Assistant.
Along with Assistant, Nougat brings an improved notifications system, which tweaks how notifications look and act within the OS. Notifications are now presented from screen to screen, and unlike previous iterations of Android, they can be grouped together for easy management.
Multitasking also gets a boost with Nougat. Whether you’re using a phone or a tablet, you’ll be able to use split-screen mode, allowing you to use two apps at once without having to exit out of each app every few minutes.