Why Android Worked
Androids: The Missing Pieces, Part I
This is the first part of hopefully an ongoing series that further explores topics raised in the book Androids: The Team That Built the Android Operating System. See the introduction article for more context on this series.
This article was originally the final chapter of the book, before it was cut for brevity and focus. It takes a step back and summarizes everything else in the book to come up with an answer to my original question: How did Android succeed? I wrote it at least a year before I published the book, as I was still editing and polishing the rest of the book (and even still gathering some source material). I was happy with the result (especially in making a connection with the work of Malcolm Gladwell, an author / podcaster / audiobook-narrator whose work I strongly admire), but in the end it was just too long, with too much repetition of ideas seen already in the book, so I rewrote a much shorter wrap-up chapter for the book and put this aside.
But here it is again. Hello, old friend.
Why Android Succeeded
“The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents. It comes from our time; from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with.”
— Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
So why did Android succeed? I’ve spent the last many pages [in the Androids book] talking about how it came to be and about the people who built it. But what were the factors that actually allowed Android not just to to exist, but to thrive and become the massively-adopted operating system that it has been for the past several years?
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the factors that led to the success of people who’s achievements lay so far outside of the norm that they were, indeed, “outliers.” People like Bill Gates, or Canadian hockey stars. In all of the cases that he explored, society’s assumption is that there was something amazing about the individual that allowed them to succeed. And while it’s certainly the case that the individuals had undeniable skills and that they were able to capitalize on their skills in phenomenal ways, Gladwell shows (with data analysis, which appeals to the engineer in all of us) that it is not the inherent personal abilities that resulted in the success, but rather the context in which they lived that enabled it to flourish.
For Bill Gates, it was the unprecedented (at that time) level of access to advanced computing resources at a young age that allowed him to become highly skilled at this new field, much more so than his peer group, by the time he was in college, so that he was well-poised to take advantage of his skills when he dropped out of college to start Microsoft.
For hockey stars in the Canadian leagues, it’s the simple fact that leagues for kids are chosen according to abilities at a young age, with a hard calendar date to determine the age range. This means that, at an age when kids grow in size and abilities dramatically year to year, the simple fact of being born right before or right after January first determines whether you will be considered highly skilled for your age or not. This essentially puts the older kids in a special competitive league that gives them access to better training regimens that simply makes them better in the long run, all because of when they were born.
For these and all of the other cases Gladwell studies in the book, the answer lies not just in the individuals, but rather in the context in which these people, or even their ancestors, were born, raised, and educated that led to their being in that right place and right time to become outliers.
Similarly, there is not one single thing that led to Android’s success, but rather the collection of all of them put together that allowed it to happen.
Android had a lot going for it: a strong team of people with the right skills, the convergence of hardware capabilities that could support such devices, a management team that understood the market well enough to know what was needed, and a lot of late nights and lost weekends donated by the hard-working team. But all of this would have been for naught without that essential element of timing. Mike Cleron, manager of the framework team at that time, observed: “If you reassembled the team and said, ‘Build another Android,’ we could build another Android. I don’t believe that we would create another android ecosystem, either the OEM or the developer ecosystem, because so much of that was timing-dependent and just being there at that time.”
[Note: The above section introduced the chapter, which went into detail on the team, the tech, the business, and timing, which are essentially (albeit more briefly) covered in the book. I am omitting them here to stick to the content that didn’t make the published edition. The section below further summarized these pieces and wrapped it all up to end the book.]
Putting It All Together
There were many factors in Android’s success, including timing. Without the unique combination of hardware capabilities that allowed smartphones, and the singular impact that the iPhone had on an industry in panic about not having a competitor to that new device, Android may not have found a foothold, and would just be another of the many failures that litter the curbside of mobile device history.
But timing was not the only factor. Android was only able to benefit from the timing because the team was capable of building the platform that the market needed, and because they worked so very hard to get Android out there in time to take advantage of that small window of time. Because they were able to get a toe-hold in the market early enough, they had the time and ability to continue building onto what they delivered in 1.0 and were able to continue to build a more robust platform that really could compete with the iPhone, and far surpassed all of the other contenders at that time.
Of course, having the right technology and the timing would not have been enough either if the ecosystem of companies was not willing to adopt the platform. Despite the rumors before Android was launched, the intention wasn’t a Google Phone, or to compete with Apple’s device strategy directly, but rather to offer a platform for the rest of the companies in the world to build and sell devices that could build a much larger marketplace. And that only happened because Android offered its platform freely to the world. So instead of facing a world of paid licensing contracts (the Microsoft model) or betting their revenue on an opaque black box of software beyond their control, companies were able to place faith in the free and open model that Android offered.
Meanwhile, as other phone platform providers have learned painfully in the years since, an operating system without applications is never going to attract users. This is a critical difference between smartphones and the older, simpler “feature phones” that preceded them. Feature phones couldn’t really do much, so having extra applications for them wasn’t really necessary; the manufacturer could provide most or all that a user of those phones needed. But once you have a computer in your pocket, you’re going to want to use it. And a single company is never going to be able to keep up with the infinite demand of users for new and unique application experiences. So the ability for Android to build and populate Market (now Google Play) with applications was also crucial to its success.
When it launched, Apple provided only its own applications, with no intention to do otherwise. But Android opened up its store from the start to external developers, and released a suite of tools with the earliest SDK that helped developers build those applications that would become so compelling for the end users. Nowadays, becoming a new player in the mobile operating system space is almost unthinkable because it would be nearly impossible to attract the amount of functionality that exists in the two large smartphone application markets, Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. In fact, there have been some attempts to get Android applications running on other platforms through some clever cross-compiling technology (which, it turned out, wasn’t enough of an attractor to bring a large audience to those devices). Because if you don’t have a nearly infinite set of apps for your users, then you don’t have a compelling platform… and you won’t have any users.
So why did Android succeed?1 Because of all of these reasons. The team had the right skills, ran very fast, and delivered an open, developer-friendly platform just in time for a market that desperately wanted it.
If you find this topic interesting, I’d invite you to check out the book, either in paperback or ebook form from No Starch Press (soon available on Amazon, other online print and ebook stores, and even orderable from your local bookstore as well), or in the upcoming audiobook from Tantor Media. All profits from all of these are being donated to tech-related charities.