SlashGear 101: What is Android?

Step into a cellphone store these past few years, and it's hard to miss Android. From a surprise public announcement back in 2007, to occupying the smartphone top-spot today – depending on which analysts or researchers you talk to – Android has managed to carve itself a niche as the Apple iPhone's key rival. Venture after the cut as Android gets the full SlashGear 101 treatment!

Google does search, what are they doing on my phone?

Google may be best known for its search engine – and its place as many people's homepage – but the company has plenty of other side-projects going on. Android has grown to be one of the biggest, freely-available software for manufacturers to put on mobile phones, tablets, set-top boxes (such as for cable or satellite TV) and other gadgets.

The core Android technology was bought when Google acquired the company responsible – and secured the services of its co-founder Andy Rubin, who is now heading the whole project as a Google senior vice-president – back in 2005. Although rumors suggested the search giant was planning a so-called "Google Phone", in actual fact the ambition was much bigger: a whole platform for phones cheap and expensive, as well as all manner of other electronics, to use.

"Today's announcement is more ambitious than any single 'Google Phone' that the press has been speculating about over the past few weeks. Our vision is that the powerful platform we're unveiling will power thousands of different phone models" Eric Schmidt, Google

Google's argument is that by having a standardized, core platform, phones can be created quicker and manufacturers can spend less tinkering on software and thus make their handsets cheaper and more cost-effective. Meanwhile, those people creating apps – distributed through the Android Market, Google's equivalent of the iPhone's App store – have a much bigger target audience to appeal to.

So who's involved?

Rather than go it alone, Google needed manufacturers (and the suppliers who provide them with components for cellphones) to sign up to the Android ethos. The end result is the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), a consortium of several companies including manufacturers, carriers, software providers, component suppliers and more.

Currently, Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG and Sony Ericsson are perhaps the best-known handset makers involved in the OHA, while network operators such as Sprint, Vodafone and T-Mobile are all onboard too. While collectively they've agreed to help drive Android and promote its adoption, they've also agreed not to break its consistency by tinkering too much with the software, despite the fact that Android is considered "open".

What do you mean, open?

"Open", or "open-source", means that the underlying software which Android uses is accessible to anybody interested in taking a look. If you're a manufacturer, that means you don't have to ask Google (or indeed pay Google) to use Android on your gadget; if you're creating software, you don't have to pay to get access in order to make your apps work. Google's engineers take responsibility for each Android update, but they include public submissions deemed worthy of being made official, suggestions from manufacturers and others, and everything is documented and released (eventually) online for all to see.

In that way, Android differs significantly from most of the other major mobile phone software platforms popular today. Apple won't let anybody else use iOS as on the iPhone, for instance, and RIM won't let anybody use its BlackBerry software. Microsoft gets paid by manufacturers wanting to use its Windows Phone software, and limits what changes can be made to the code.

So the experience on every Android phone is the same?

Not at all. While the core software may be the same, manufacturers are free to make all manner of tweaks to Android as they see fit. Considering the fast pace of the mobile phone segment today, those changes are often done to better differentiate one handset from another. They can vary from a few minor amendments so that the homescreen – the main page of the phone – looks different from everyone else's, to broad changes that dig deep into the underlying software and make the handset significantly different to use.

That act of changing Android to suit an individual company's market intentions has led to what's known as fragmentation, or divergences to "pure" Android as Google releases it. Google has certain limits it insists manufacturers abide by if they want to use its premium software – such as the Gmail app, or getting access to the Android Market of third-party apps – which include the minimum specifications of the phone and what tweaks to the software have been made.

Even within those limits, however, manufacturers have pushed their own ideas and left big differences in the overall Android experience moving from device to device. Pick up an HTC-made Android phone, for instance, and it's a very different look and feel to, say, a Motorola-made phone. Experts disagree on how dangerous this fragmentation will be to Android's progression, though a rough rule of thumb is that the more changes a manufacturer makes, the longer it takes for them to push out software updates when Google amends the underlying Android code.

What's next?

Although manufacturers have experimented with putting Android on devices other than phones, Google's next "official" push is tablets. These have bigger touchscreens and so lend themselves to a different on-screen layout and features. Google has begun a separate strand of Android development, known as "Honeycomb", which is intended specifically for tablets, as manufacturers like Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG and others attempt to take on Apple's iPad. We'll cover Android Honeycomb in more depth in a future SlashGear 101.

For more information on Android, check out our sibling site and the bustling forums at Android Community!