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Excerpt: How Google bought Android—according to folks in the room

Androids: the team that built the Android operating system is a new book by longtime Android engineer Chet Haase. Haase has been with the Android team since 2010 and he interviewed dozens of Googlers for this book, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at early Android development. Courtesy of Haase, we provide readers with an overview of chapters four and five of the book, “The Pitch” and “The Acquisition”. This part covers freelance Android Inc.’s venture capital research and the team’s eventual meeting with Google. The book was released this weekend as an eBook and paperback (Amazon, Google Play), and Haase is donating the proceeds to Black Girls Code and Women Who Code.

In mid-2005, Android was acquired and the future looked bright. But just six months earlier, things weren’t so rosy. In January of that year, the startup was in desperate need of money, and its main task was the same as most startups: securing funding. After switching from a camera operating system to an open source phone platform, they still had the daunting task of creating a product, which meant they would need more money to hire a team large enough to do the job.

The original demo, written by Brian Swetland and Chris White and later improved by Fadden, showing a home screen and several apps (most of which haven't been implemented).  It's a far cry from a modern Android home screen.

The original demo, written by Brian Swetland and Chris White and later improved by Fadden, showing a home screen and several apps (most of which haven’t been implemented). It’s a far cry from a modern Android home screen.

Chet Haase

The company therefore focused on three things. First of all, they needed a demo to show what was possible. Then they had to articulate their vision and create a pitch deck to help explain that vision. Finally, they had to take the demo and slide set on the road to present their story to potential investors.

Demonstration time

The first job of Andy McFadden (known to the team as “Fadden”) when he joined the company was to solidify the demo, a prototype phone system that Brian Swetland and Chris White were working on. It wasn’t really functional (for example, it showed a ticker on the home screen that used a set of hard-coded symbols and stale data). But the demo represented a vision of what the product could be like when it was actually implemented.

One of the apps that Fadden added to the demo was a simple calendar app. This first demo project would come back to haunt him. After many years of working on things on the Android platform, he ended up helping with the Android Calendar app. Time waits for no one … but calendar apps do.

The mobile opportunity

As the team refined their vision, they created a set of slides to explain it. These slides painted a picture of the opportunities they saw for Android in the market, as well as a picture of how Android would make money for investors.

The March 2005 slide set had fifteen slides, which was enough to grab the attention of VCs as well as Google.

The pitch deck got interesting by the second slide, which compared the PC and phone markets. In 2004, there were 178 million PC shipments worldwide. During the same period, 675 million phones were shipped; nearly four times as many units as PCs, but with processors and memory as good as PCs in 1998.

This potential in mobile hardware was a point that Dianne Hackborn, then at PalmSource and possibly the Android team, was also thinking about. The mobile industry was ready to explode because there was finally enough power for there to be a real capable computing platform: Dianne said, “You could see the writing on the wall. Hardware was getting more and more powerful and the market was already bigger than PCs.

The presentation also identified the problem of the rising cost of mobile software. The cost of hardware was falling, but not the cost of software, making it an increasingly important part of the cost per handset. But cell phone makers weren’t experts in software platform development, and lacked the skills or interest in providing the growing capabilities required to differentiate their software from that of their competitors.

An open opportunity

The second major point of the pitch deck was that there was a gap and an opportunity in the market for an open platform. In other words, Android would be a free operating system available to manufacturers through open source. Companies could use and distribute this operating system on their own phones, without being beholden to a software vendor and without having to create it themselves. This open approach was something that just wasn’t available at the time.

Microsoft provided a proprietary operating system that manufacturers could license and then transfer to their hardware. Symbian has been used primarily by Nokia, with some adoption by Sony and Motorola. RIM had its own platform, which it used only for its own BlackBerry devices. But there was no alternative for manufacturers who wanted a high-performance smartphone without building their own operating system, devoting significant effort to customizing an existing system and / or paying hefty licensing fees.

Slide 7 schematized the potential of an open platform, providing something that was not available at that time.
Enlarge / Slide 7 schematized the potential of an open platform, providing something that was not available at that time.

Chet Haase

More problematically, the available systems have failed to provide an ecosystem for the applications. Symbian provided some of the basic infrastructure for an operating system, but the UI layer was left as an exercise for the manufacturer, resulting in an app model for phones where applications written for one version of Symbian would not necessarily work on another. variation, even on phones from the same manufacturer.

The Java programming language, known to the server and desktop world as “write once, run anywhere”, could have provided this kind of cross-device application capability, but Java ME was well below that in the mobile space. While it provides at least the same language on all devices (just as Symbian has provided the same language of C ++ for all of its implementations), Java ME has addressed the wide variety of form factors and architectures in phones in providing different versions of the platform, called profiles. These profiles had different capabilities, so developers had to modify their apps to run on different devices, and often this approach failed when the capabilities were drastically different from device to device.

Linux to the rescue! … Almost. Texas Instruments (TI) provided an open platform based on the Linux operating system kernel. All the manufacturers needed was Linux itself, the benchmark hardware from TI, and then a host of other modules that manufacturers had to acquire, license, build, or otherwise provide to create their own device. As Brian Swetland said, “You can use TI’s OMAP chips to build a Linux phone. So you needed TI’s OMAP, then forty components from forty different middleware vendors. You put it all together and put them all in and then you’d have a Linux phone. And it was just absurd.

TI provided a Linux-based solution, but many details of the drivers and other components were left to the manufacturer's discretion, which was not a convincing option.
Enlarge / TI provided a Linux-based solution, but many details of the drivers and other components were left to the manufacturer’s discretion, which was not a convincing option.

Chet Haase

Android wanted to provide the world’s first complete open handset platform solution. It would be built on Linux, like TI’s offering, but would also provide all the parts needed so that manufacturers only have one system to adopt to build and ship their devices. Android would also provide a unique programming model for app developers, so that their apps would work the same on all devices the platform was running on. By having a single platform that works across all devices that use it, Android would make phones easier for manufacturers and developers.

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