By mid-2005, Android had been acquired and the future looked bright. But just six months ago, things weren’t quite so rosy. In January of that year, the startup was in dire need of money and its main task was the same as for most startups: to get funding. After switching from a camera operating system to an open source mobile platform, they still have the daunting task of actually building a product, which means they’ll need more money to hire a big enough team to do the work.
So the company focused on three things. First, they needed a demo to show what was possible. Next, they needed to articulate their vision and create a presentation to help explain that vision. Finally, they needed to take the demo and slide platform down the road to pitch their story to potential investors.
Andy McFadden (known to the team as “Fadden”) when he joined was to anchor the demo, a prototype telephone system that Brian Swetland and Chris White were working on. It wasn’t actually working (eg it showed an arrow indicator on the home screen which uses a bunch of cryptic icons and stale data). But the demo is a vision of what the product can be like when it is actually implemented.
One of the apps Fadden added to the demo was a simple calendar app. This early pilot will be back to haunt him. After several years of working on things across the Android platform, he ended up helping out with the Android calendar app. Time waits for no man…but calendar apps do.
As the team refined their vision, they created a slide deck to explain it. These slides painted a picture of the opportunities they saw for Android in the market, as well as a picture of how Android could make money for investors.
The slide deck in March 2005 had fifteen slides, which were enough to attract the attention of daring investors as well as Google.
The presentation platform was made interesting by the second slide, which compared the PC and phone markets. In 2004, there were 178 million shipments of computers worldwide. During the same period, 675 million phones were shipped; Almost four times as many units as computers, but with processors and memory they were as capable as computers in 1998.
This potential in mobile devices was a point that Diane Hackburn, then at PalmSource and eventually at the Android team, was considering. The mobile industry was ready to emerge because there was finally enough power to have a real, capable computing platform: “You can see the writing on the wall,” Diane said. “Hardware was getting stronger, and the market was really bigger than computers.”
The presentation also identified the issue of the increasing cost of mobile software. The cost of hardware was dropping, but the cost of software wasn’t, making it a larger and larger percentage of the cost of each hardware. But hardware manufacturers were not experts in developing software platforms and did not have the skill set or interest in providing the increased capabilities required to differentiate their software from those of their competitors.
The second key point in the presentation set was that there was a gap and opportunity in the market for an open platform. That is, Android will be a free operating system available to manufacturers through open source. Companies will be able to use and distribute this operating system on their own phones, without being indebted to the software provider and without having to build it themselves. This open approach was something that was not available at the time.
Microsoft has introduced a proprietary operating system that manufacturers can license and then port to their devices. Symbian was used primarily by Nokia, with some absorption from Sony and Motorola. RIM has its own platform, which it uses only for its BlackBerry devices. But there was no alternative for manufacturers who wanted a capable smartphone without building their own operating system, putting in significant effort customizing an existing system, and/or paying high licensing fees.
Most problematic is that the systems that were available failed to provide an ecosystem for applications. Symbian provided some of the underlying OS architecture, but the user interface layer was left as an exercise to the manufacturer, resulting in an app model for phones where apps written for one flavor of Symbian wouldn’t necessarily work on some other variation, even on phones from the same manufacturer.
The Java programming language, known in the server and desktop world as “write once, run anywhere”, may have provided this kind of cross-device applicability, but Java ME fell far short of that in the mobile space. While it offered at least the same language across devices (just as Symbian provided the same C++ language for all of its applications), Java ME handled a wide range of form factors and architectures in phones by providing different versions of the platform, called appearance. These profiles have different capabilities, so developers needed to change their apps to run on different devices, and this approach often failed when the capabilities were significantly different across devices.
Linux saves! … Approximately. Texas Instruments (TI) introduced an open platform based on the Linux kernel. All manufacturers needed Linux itself, reference hardware from TI, and then a huge set of other modules that manufacturers had to acquire, license, build, or otherwise provide to build their own hardware. As Brian Sweetland said, “You could use TI’s OMAP chips to build a Linux phone. So I needed TI’s OMAP and then forty components from forty different middleware vendors. You put all these things together and combined them all and then you would have a Linux phone. And that was Just ridiculous.”
Android wanted to provide the world’s first integrated open mobile platform solution. It will be built on Linux, like TI’s demo, but it will also provide all the necessary pieces so that manufacturers have only one system to adopt in order to build and ship their hardware. Android will also provide a single programming model for app developers, so that their apps work the same across all the devices the platform runs on. By having a single platform that works across all the devices you use, Android simplifies phones for both manufacturers and developers.