The day Google Had to ‘Start Over’ on Android
Google was building a secret mobile product to fend off chief rival Microsoft. Then Apple announced the iPhone, and everything changed.
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. Its engineers thought that they were on track to deliver a revolutionary device that would change the mobile phone industry forever. They had been working with prototypes for months and had planned a launch by the end of the 2007 . . . until Jobs took the stage to unveil the iPhone.
“As a consumer I was blown away. I wanted one immediately. But as a Google engineer, I thought ‘We’re going to have to start over,'” former Apple engineering lead and early Android team member Chris DeSalvo is quoted as saying about Apple’s handset. 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.
The software industry for mobile phones was one of the most dysfunctional in all technology. Phones weren’t powerful enough to run anything but rudimentary software. But the biggest problem, as Jobs had learned, was that the industry was ruled by an oligopoly: Few companies besides the carriers and the phone makers were writing software for phones, and what existed was terrible.
On the day Jobs announced the iPhone, the director of the Android team, Andy Rubin, was , on his way to a meeting with one of the myriad handset makers and carrier. 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. “Holy crap,” he said to one of his colleagues in the car. “I guess we’re not going to ship that phone.”
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. The Android team’s response was to refocus development on a new touch-enabled device — which would later become HTC’s T-Mobile G1 — and delay their planned public launch by a year. Several features from Sooner were held over, such as the phone’s physical keyboard, but the software was completely reworked and redesigned for a touch interface.
The Android team had underestimated Jobs. 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.
Steve Jobs felt that Android was a rip-off of Apple’s iOS and wasn’t going to settle any lawsuits with Google or its partners no matter what. “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong,” Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.” Though Apple has not sued Google directly, the companies have waged a proxy war over Android both in court and in the conference rooms of regulators around the world. The war’s most famous battle, Apple’s landmark lawsuit against Samsung, recently concluded with Apple winning judgements totaling nearly $1 billion as a result of Samsung’s infringement.