Google has come a long way since the early days when it struggled to convince the world that its friendly green extraterrestrial could make applesauce of the revolutionary iPhone.
In truth, Google's first Android phone, the HTC-made T-Mobile G1, wasn't much to look at when it debuted in October 2008, with its trough for a keyboard and its bizarrely jutting chin. HTC was hardly a known brand, and we weren't even sure if we were getting a single Google Phone or an entire operating system. Yet the humble G1, with its ugly design and few apps, kicked off an Android avalanche just the same.
Fast-forward to 2012, when the now-mature Android operating system is neck and neck with the iPhone around the globe. Android is everywhere.
Yet for all the platform's success, Android is still plagued by fragmentation, by too many versions of the operating system available at the same time across handsets and carriers. Developers and the press will once again raise a hue and cry this week when Google spills the beans on its Jelly Bean OS at Google I/O. As of today, many existing Android 2.3 Gingerbread smartphones are still waiting for their Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich updates, eight months after the SDK became available.
A little perspective tends to go a long way, and in light of that, here's a look at milestones in Google's Android operating system, from its humble beginnings to its current ambitions in smartphone and tablet domination.
GPS and Bluetooth (but not stereo Bluetooth)
Tight integration with Google services like Gmail, Google Maps (with Street View), and Google Calendar
Apps: Amazon MP3 Store; YouTube
Android Market (about 35 apps at launch)
No Microsoft Exchange Server; no camcorder
Universal search box (search had been limited to the Web)
Revamped Android Market: Browsing categories (Apps, Games, Downloads) and filters (Top Free, Top Paid, Just In)
Camera: Toggle between camera and video modes; integrated photo gallery and camera with bulk photo deleting
SDK expands support for gestures, voice-to-text
Virtual onscreen keyboard
Camcorder mode for recording (and watching) video
Home screen widgets and folders
Copy/paste and search within the browser
Direct upload to YouTube and Picasa
Multiple user accounts
Exchange support; universal e-mail inbox
Quick Contact pop-up widget to launch communications with friends in the address book
Search saved SMS and MMS messages
Camera improvements include support for flash and digital zoom
Keyboard improvements: Adaptive dictionary that includes contact names in suggestions
2.1 (Eclair, second helping)
Live wallpaper; five home screens
Speech-to-text added to any text field; microphone icon for voice dictation in e-mails, texts, and so on
USB tethering and hot-spot support
Android Market update: Batch and automatic updates; installing apps to the SD card
Adobe Flash 10.1
File uploading in the browser
Improved Microsoft Exchange support: Security policies, global address lookup, calendar sync, remote wipe
Bluetooth support for voice dialing and contact sharing
WebM video compression support
NFC (near-field communication) support
Switch to front-facing camera from camera app
Virtual keyboard shortcuts
3D graphics support
Side-by-side browser tabs; private browsing
Dual-pane modes for address book, e-mail
Redesigned UI includes program thumbnails
Video chatting with Google Talk
Full-screen-mode photo gallery
May 2011-February 2012
Support for peripherals like keyboards and game pads
"Pay as you go" support for 3G, 4G tablets
Various bug fixes and enhancements
4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
Support for virtual buttons in addition to touch-sensitive buttons
Create folders by dragging apps on top of each other
A new app tray tab for thumbing through widgets
Calendar app now supports pinch-to-zoom
Gmail gets offline search, swiping between conversations
Revamped Gmail user interface
New Chrome browser syncs with your bookmarks, saves pages offline, supports 16 browser tabs
More keyboard error correction, inline spell check
Customizable lock screen, launcher
Recent applications icon
New swipe/delete behavior
Improved voice integration and copy and paste
Face Unlock security feature
Data Usage tracking
Hide unwanted app icons
Shut down apps that are using background data
Native camera features include zero shutter lag, continuous focus, zoom while recording, taking a still photo while recording, panorama photos, time lapse settings 1080p recording
Face detection in the camera
Integrated photo editor
New gallery layout, organized by location and person
Phone app lets you swipe between favorite friends with integrated visual voice mail
Speed up and slow down voice mails
Quick message sends canned response text message when you decline a call
Android Beam, an NFC feature for exchanging information between two phones by tapping them
Wi-Fi Direct support
4.1 (Jelly Bean)
Faster, smoother performance with "Project Butter"
Expandable notifications with greater interaction
Voice search access by swiping up from bottom of the screen
Voice actions engine replies to some queries
Default Chrome browser
Resizable app widgets (for some)
Android Beam support for transferring larger files, like photo and video
New filmstrip view of recent shots in the camera app
Applications update in Google Play with just the changed code
Sound search widget for music ID
Higher-resolution contact photos
Greater accessibility options
Expanded language support, especially for Arabic and Hebrew
* The date reflects the SDK release rather than the over-the-air (OTA) update timeline since OTA release dates vary by carrier and handset model.
Jelly Bean (Android 4.1)
Less than a year after the Ice Cream Sandwich release, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean builds from Android 4.0 with incremental additions that still pack a lot of punch.
Google's Voice Actions has been dusted off, prettied up, and thrown into the spotlight to stand against Apple's Siri. Google also devised Google Now, an optional program that uses your GPS coordinates, calendar, and search history to anticipate your needs for travel information, sports scores, public transportation routes, and reminders on when to leave in order to make your appointments on time.
Google has also built out its notifications to let you see and do more whenever you get a new alert, and expanded Android Beam, which now transfers meatier files like photos and video, in addition to URLs, maps, and contact details.
Fragmentation on the rise
While Jelly Bean is a worthy update, Google is only digging itself deeper into the fragmentation mess. Most current phones have been brought up to Android 2.3 Gingerbread, but despite its announcement eight months ago, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is still shiny, new, and absent from the majority of top U.S. smartphones. The hunger for Jelly Bean, which arrives first for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Samsung Nexus S, Motorola Xoom, and Google Nexus 7 tablet will only frustrate more.
Editors' note:This article was originally published August 4, 2010. It was updated February 7, February 15, September 20, November 2, 2011, June 26, 2012, and July 2, 2012.