The Android era: From G1 to KitKat

Android 4.4 KitKat refreshed the operating system with a new design, and ushered in a plan to deal with fragmentation. CNET weighs in on how far the Android OS has come and where it's going next.

Marichrist Benitez/CNET

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. Still the humble G1, with its ugly design and few apps, kicked off an Android avalanche just the same.

Now in 2014, Android and iOS both command the smartphone market (CNET's Jason Parker outlines the history of iOS here). Yet for all the platform's success, too many versions of the operating system are available at the same time across handsets and carriers. Whether you call that fragmentation or not, Google is actively trying to change it. When the company released version 4.4 KitKat in 2013, it made a big push to make its operating system smaller, so that it could run on budget devices with small amounts of internal storage and just 512MB of RAM (most flagship Android phones have 1GB or more). And yet, while some Android device manufacturers are starting to build KitKat phones, we still see plenty of brand-new low-end devices released with Jelly Bean 4.3 and 4.2. At least for the foreseeable future, the fragmentation problem is here to stay.

A little perspective tends to go a long way, and in light of that, here's a look at the major milestones in Google's Android operating system, from its humble beginnings to its current ambitions in smartphone and tablet domination.

Android version SDK release* Notable updates
1.0 (G1) February 2008
  • GPS and Bluetooth (but not stereo Bluetooth)
  • Multitasking
  • 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

1.5 (Cupcake) April 2009
  • 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

1.6 (Donut) September 2009
  • Virtual onscreen keyboard
  • Camcorder mode for recording (and watching) video
  • Stereo Bluetooth
  • Home screen widgets and folders
  • Copy/paste and search within the browser
  • Direct upload to YouTube and Picasa

2.0 (Eclair) October 2009
  • Multiple user accounts
  • Exchange support; universal email 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
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • Keyboard improvements: Adaptive dictionary that includes contact names in suggestions
2.1 (Eclair) January 2010
  • Live wallpaper; five home screens
  • Speech-to-text added to any text field; microphone icon for voice dictation in emails, texts, and so on
2.2 (Froyo) May 2010
  • Speedier OS
  • USB tethering and hotspot 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
2.3 (Gingerbread) December 2010
  • Redesigned copy/paste
  • WebM video compression support
  • NFC (near-field communication) support
  • Switch to front-facing camera from camera app
  • Virtual keyboard shortcuts
3.0 (Honeycomb) February 2011
  • 3D graphics support
  • Side-by-side browser tabs; private browsing
  • Dual-pane modes for address book, email
  • Redesigned UI includes program thumbnails
  • Video chatting with Google Talk
  • Full-screen-mode photo gallery
  • Bluetooth tethering
3.1-3.2.6 (Honeycomb) May 2011-February 2012
  • Support for peripherals like keyboards and game pads
  • Resizable widgets
  • "Pay as you go" support for 3G, 4G tablets
  • Various bug fixes and enhancements
4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) October 2011
  • 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
  • Roboto typeface
  • 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) July 2012
  • 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
  • Google Now
  • Offline dictation
  • 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
  • Interface tweaks

4.2-4.3 (Jelly Bean)

November 2012-October 2013

  • Lock screen widgets, and the ability to open the camera from the lock screen.
  • Quick Settings in the notification menu to toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and more.
  • "Daydream" screensavers, which show time and other information when the screen is locked or device is docked.
  • Multiple user accounts on tablets only.
  • Support for wireless display (such as Miracast)
  • Accessibility features, including triple-tap to magnify the entire screen, pan and zoom with two fingers. Speech output for blind users.
  • Unified interface layout for all devices, with system bar at the top of the screen, and a home screen dock
  • More Actionable Notifications, which let you respond to the notification without opening the app.
  • Bluetooth Low Energy support.
  • Location tracking with Wi-Fi -- your device can track your location without turning on Wi-Fi.
  • Support for 4K resolution phones.

4.4 (KitKat)

October 2013

  • Major design interface update, especially for new Nexus devices.
  • Translucent status bar in the OS and in apps.
  • New "immersive mode" where apps can hide navigation and status bars.
  • The size of the operating system shrunk so it can run on lower-end devices with small amounts of RAM and internal storage.
  • Wireless printing using Google Cloud Print.

* 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.

Android 4.4 KitKat

Android KitKat was released on October 31, 2013, and brought with it a bunch of design changes, most of which were only noticeable on the new Nexus 5 handset. While there have always been differences between Android on a Nexus device and Android on every other phone or tablet, the Nexus 5 took on a completely new look thanks to the Google Now launcher (originally called the Google Experience launcher), a home screen replacement with a transparent app drawer, large icons, and a dedicated Google Now screen.

On other Android phones and tablets, KitKat's additions are a bit more subtle. On most phones, you'll now see a transparent status bar, instead of the earlier black bar, on the home screen and in some apps. KitKat also brings wireless printing to the entire OS, so you can print photos, websites, documents, and more from your phone or tablet, as long as you've set up Google Cloud Print.


Android's future

At the time of this update, we are a little more than a month away from Google I/O 2014, the company's development conference, where it often announces new products, software updates, and more. What we'll see at the event is still up in the air, but it's possible we'll get a shiny new Android update. It might be version 4.5, or Google could finally jump to a new number with 5.0. Either way, rumors say the next flavor of Android will be named Lollipop, and debut on a new 8-inch Nexus tablet. We can't wait to sink our teeth into it.

Editors' note: This article was originally published August 4, 2010, and is periodically updated to include new versions of Android.


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