Android OS has come quite a long way in terms of features and usability since the introduction of the T-Mobile HTC G1. When the G1 launched back in 2008, it was so lacking in real smartphone features that it almost didn’t even deserve a cute dessert name like all of its successors. Since then, Google’s mobile operating system experiment has grown up and come a long way to dethroning the iPhone as the king of smartphones.
Today, we’re on the cusp of the Android 2.2 OS update, codenamed “Froyo,” which promises to make Android devices ever faster and more powerful. We’re also hearing whispers of the next generation of Android OS, known only by its Gingerbread codename. So, as a tribute and a quick overview of what Android has accomplished, where it came from, and what’s still to come, we’d like to present you with our “Evolution of Android: Follow The Gingerbread Road(map).”
We won’t touch on every feature below, but all versions will have a decent overview.
With the introduction of Android 1.5, we started to hear the name “Cupcake” floating around in reference to the first Android OS software update. The update gave the Android OS a little more polish in some areas, but some of the biggest features of the update were certainly the introduction of the (still bad) on-screen keyboard, as well as widgets. Yes, copy and paste within the browser, video-recording, and then being able to upload to YouTube directly were big deals, but a lot of the upgrades were features you may not use every day, where widgets and the on-screen keyboard likely would be used every day.
Widgets have been available in other mobile operating systems, like Samsung’s TouchWiz, but none were as compelling as Android’s implementation. Sure, it took quite a while for a decent selection of widgets to become available, or for developers to start bundling widgets with their apps, but they eventually caught on. Honestly, widgets are one of the great differentiators for Android.
Widgets provide a good amount of “surface” or “at a glance” information, without the need to launch an app. Sometimes you don’t necessarily need the full functionality of an application to get the tiniest bit of information. For example, the weather widget tells you the high and low temperature of the day, with the current temperature at the moment, and if you need any more from that, just tap the widget to open up the weather app itself. Also with all the ways to customize Android devices, widgets may indeed be on of the biggest appeals, just look at HTC Sense.
Then came Android 1.6, also known as Donut. Donut was a small update, but it packed a punch with a revamped search box, camera and gallery application, and a completely refreshed Android Market. The search bar, which was initially intended just for searching the web, now allowed a user to search many other places within the device, like bookmarks, contacts, applications, and more, right from the home screen.
The update to the Android Market would probably be the most noticeable change with Donut, as it was now had a white and green color scheme to it, opposed to the black and gray look of previous versions. The new market was also a little more user-friendly, breaking up applications by paid, free, and “just in.” The new version of the Android Market also supported screenshots of a selected application, which was a much requested feature. Still, the Android Market as it stands today needs some fixing. Application discoverability is still atrocious, but I expect to see some big changes later on with the Market.
The Camera application also saw a revamp, and while it wasn’t the prettiest, it was still a step up from what we were working with previously. Users could easily toggle from the camera to video recording without leaving the app, and the settings were now hidden on the left side of the screen under a slide-out side menu bar. According to the Android Developer site, the Camera application launched 39% faster, and the shot-to-shot time was improved by 28%. The overall look of the revamped camera application wasn’t exactly its strongest aspect.
The only thing unfortunate about the Android 1.6 update? Not many devices actually received it. Devices like the Droid Eris or Hero jumped straight from Android 1.5 to Android 2.1. Donut was a nice, small upgrade, and is still used by about a quarter of all Android users, but that’s as far as it went.
Android 2.0 Eclair was a very nice step in the operating system’s evolution. Debuting on the Motorola Droid in November of 09′, this was the second major iteration of the platform and represented the point where Android began gaining the attention of the masses. Thanks to new features, along side Verizon’s relentless marketing campaign, as well as some viral videos, Android OS became a household name.
Eclair allowed Android to flex its “social” muscle. Applications were able to sync with contacts from Facebook, and later on, Twitter, allowing you to have all your contacts from every single social network in onc place. Pictures of a contact were pulled from a social network, allowing virtually no blank pictures for your contacts, as long as they were a part of a particular network. Eclair also brought us the Quick Contact menu, allowing you to tap on a contact’s photo and a menu would slide in, showing all forms of communication with said contact. Eclair also polished the UI, bringing in some slick transitions and overall spit-shine that was much needed at the time.
Eclair didn’t stop there. Android 2.0 brought us a handful of new camera features, such as digital zoom, scene mode, white balance, color effects, and macro focus. We’d have to wait until Froyo for the camera application to be polished up enough to give us the enjoyable experience we have today, but Eclair did make some big updates to the camera app.
Android’s virtual keyboard was also improved with multitouch support, a better dictionary that learned common words, as well as suggestions for contact names. Still, the stock Android keyboard needed a lot of tooling around to be a comfortable typing method.
The Android browser also saw an upgrade, which refined the overall look. Double-tap to zoom was added into the browser so users would not have to rely solely on the plus and minus buttons on the bottom of the screen. The bookmarks view was also altered to support thumbnails, and the browser gained HTML5 support.
Oh, and the biggest update with Android 2.0 was the Google Maps Navigation turn-by-turn GPS navigation service that Google was nice enough to offer for free. That single launch brought Garmin’s stock price down 16%, and Tom Tom’s stock down 21% on the day of the announcement.
Android 2.1 OS represented the second stage of Eclair’s evolution with the introduction of the Nexus One. Android 2.1 brought with it one of the slickest iterations of the Android homescreen ever seen. Android 2.1 is an extension of 2.0, and is still very much Eclair, but with just a little more flare.
Live Wallpapers were introduced into this version of the operating system, which were simply animated, and interactive wallpapers. They may provide little purpose, but were definitely something we’d never seen on an OS, and are just plain fun. Android 2.1 also gave us 5 home screens to work with, instead of the standard 3 we were used to prior to 2.1.
In addition to the extra home screens, the 2.1 update gave you a different way to navigate through your home screens. Dots align either side of the app drawer launcher button, to tell you which screen you were on, and long pressing these dots would give you a thumbnail view of all home screens at the bottom. Somewhere in the middle of iOS and WebOS, as well as somewhere in between “pretty cool looking” and “useless.” Helpful nonetheless.
The Nexus One was also the first handset that extended the existing voice search capabilities found on previous versions of Android by giving a user the option to translate speech into text in any text entry field. A microphone button was added to the keyboard, allowing you to speak instead of typing for emails, texts, search, and pretty much anything else you’d need to type.
Android 2.1 also brought in some cool 3D effects into the OS. The application launcher was replaced with an app launcher icon. Instead of a tab you drag up to reveal your applications, you simply tapped on the app launcher and your applications would fly in from all corners, and scrolling through them produced a 3D “waterfall” effect.
The photo gallery also saw a major 3D revamp. CoolIris helped Google develop the new gallery, and it’s one of the nicest built-in applications for the OS to date. If only they did the same for the Music player…
Still Eclair here, folks, but we’ll make this one quick. Not even a month after the release of the Nexus One, Google pushed out an update to the device. This update was probably the smallest of them all, but packed one of the biggest punches.
This update added multitouch functionality across the board on the Nexus One, save for applications like Gmail. Maps, Gallery, and the Browser now supported the much sought-after feature that iPhone users have had since day one. Multitouch on Android works perfectly well, and is one of the most welcomed additions to the platform.
The update also added Google Goggles into the list of pre-installed applications, and Google Maps was updated to version 3.4, which added some nice extras.
Last but not least, the update made an attempt at fixing the 3G connection problem that had plagued the device for some time. While some people saw some improvements, many did not. Google and T-Mobile have since given up on finding a solution. Hey, at least they were honest.
Google’s most recent update, Android 2.2 Froyo has stepped up its game in so many fronts, it’s hard to even consider the best of the “competing” OS’s out there actual competition to Froyo. While the iOS 4 has an overall polish and is more intuitive, Froyo pretty much destroys it on all arenas. We won’t go too in-depth with this version, as we’ve covered Froyo in-depth here. But here is an overview of Android’s newest dessert.
Froyo gives users a massive speed increase, thanks to the JIT compiler, and the Java V8 engine. With the JIT compiler, applications will launch quicker, and the overall OS will just be that much snappier. The Java V8 engine, which you can find on Google’s desktop browser, makes the Android web experience the fastest in all the land.
Froyo makes the best of your data connection, and can turn your phone into a mobile hotspot. This feature may not make it to any other phone than the Nexus One, since wireless carriers would rather you pay a premium for that feature.
A feature that people have been waiting for for years in now a reality in Android 2.2. Support for Adobe Flash. Once a device has been updated to Froyo, the Flash player can be found in the Android Market, and performs quite well. Despite Steve Jobs’ utter hatred for the technology, Adobe and Google have proved that the rich media technology can run on a mobile phone, and run pretty damn well at that.
Other features include the option to move applications to handsets’ microSD card, a slightly tweaked home screen look, new widgets, more photo gallery enhancements, a handful of Exchange features, as well as the cloud-to-device API that allows you to send web pages and Google Maps directions from your computer to your phone.
With Froyo only available on the Nexus One at the moment, people are already clamoring about what features Android 3.0 Gingerbread may hold for us. We don’t have much solid information to go on at this point, but there are quite a few features that we can expect.
Google Music : Google may get into the music business with Gingerbread, with plans to take on iTunes directly. We might just see Google selling music directly through the Android Market, or downloaded from the as of yet unseen web-portal and sent through Google’s servers to your device. But that’s not all. Google will likely allow the user to stream their computer’s music library over the air to their handsets as well. You can do this now with an application, HomePipe, but Google’s official solution will likely be much better. Google is getting more media-savvy, and the introduction of Google Music should not come as a surprise to anyone. With the introduction of more music services, we can expect a new look to the media player as well.
Online Android Market : In addition to music being streamed from your computer to your handset, Google demonstrated at the Google I/O 2010 conference that users will soon be able to download an application from the desktop version of the Android Market website, and send it straight to your phone without touching it at all. Taking advantage of the already in-place Cloud-to-Device API, this would make browsing for apps a faster and easier experience.
User Interface Overhaul: One of the biggest rumors is that Android will experience a complete UI revamp, and it will likely be taking notes from Android 2.1’s Gallery application. So we’re talking 3D Android here. Snatching up one of Palm’s WebOS designer’s, who will likely lead the design team, will likely aid in the process, and we can’t wait to see what they come up with.
Google Sync: Another rumor that’s surfaced is that there will be an official way to sync your Android device to your PC. If you haven’t realized who Google is gunning for, you probably haven’t actually read this. DoubleTwist, your days are numbered.
There will likely be hardware recommendations to support Gingerbread, not minimum requirements as we’d previously heard. Gingerbread will also be the beginning of a great division between high-end and low-end Android handsets. Gingerbread will obviously be for the higher-end devices, while lower-end devices, if they can make it, will stick with Froyo.
There are a few more rumors swimming out there, but the rumors above will likely come true. That said, most of these things are still rumors, and are in no way confirmed by Google. We also aren’t even sure if Gingerbread will be Android 3.0, where it could pop up as 2.3, 2.5, and so on. With all of the overhauls and revamps, we think Gingerbread deserves to stand out as a 3.0 product.
Expected to hit in mid October, wih devices shipping in November/December, we don’t have too much longer to find out what the sweetest Android may bring us.
What are some features you’d like to see in Android’s next version? Sound off in the comments!