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. Tucked in a first-floor corner of Google’s Building 44, surrounded by Google ad reps, its four dozen engineers thought that they were on track to deliver a revolutionary device that would change the mobile phone industry forever.
By January 2007, they’d all worked sixty-to-eighty-hour weeks for fifteen months—some for more than two years—writing and testing code, negotiating software licenses, and flying all over the world to find the right parts, suppliers, and manufacturers. They had been working with prototypes for six months and had planned a launch by the end of the year . . . until Jobs took the stage to unveil the iPhone.
Chris DeSalvo’s reaction to the iPhone was immediate and visceral. “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.’”
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. Four years before he’d talked an intransigent music industry into letting him put their catalog on iTunes for ninety-nine cents a song. Now he had convinced a wireless carrier to let him build a revolutionary smartphone. But for the Google Android team, the iPhone was a kick in the stomach.
“What we had suddenly looked just so . . . nineties,” DeSalvo said. “It’s just one of those things that are obvious when you see it.”
The cell phone industry in 2005 was the perfect example of a hairy Google-size problem. The software industry for mobile phones was one of the most dysfunctional in all technology. There wasn’t enough wireless bandwidth for users to surf the Internet on a phone without frustration. 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. Wireless bandwidth would improve and phone chips would get more powerful; but back then it looked as if the carriers and phone makers would control it all.
“We had done a deal with Vodafone [the big European carrier] to try to get Google search on their phones,” said one top Google executive who would not give his name. “But the search they offered us was that we could put some results on, but that they would control most of them, and that our results would be at the bottom of every query. They didn’t have a good mobile browser. Ring-tones [that they were selling] sometimes got prioritized in search results. All the carriers were doing this. They thought they could provide all the services inside a walled garden [as AOL had in the 1990s], and that this control was the best way to make money.”
On the day Jobs announced the iPhone, the director of the Android team, Andy Rubin, was six hundred miles away in Las Vegas, on his way to a meeting with one of the myriad handset makers and carriers that descend on the city for the Consumer Electronics Show. He reacted exactly as DeSalvo predicted. 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. It would never need to be tethered to a laptop or desktop. It would allow multiple applications to run at the same time, and it would easily connect to an online store of other applications that Google would seed and encourage. By contrast, the iPhone needed to connect to iTunes regularly, it wouldn’t run more than one application at a time, and in the beginning it had no plans to allow anything resembling an application store.
However, the Sooner phone was ugly. It looked like a Black-Berry, with a traditional keyboard and a small screen that wasn’t touch-enabled. Rubin and his team, along with partners HTC and T-Mobile, believed consumers would care more about the great software it contained than its looks. This was conventional wisdom back then. Revolutionary phone designs rarely succeeded. The Nokia N-Gage, which in 2003 tried to combine a gaming system with a phone and email device, often gets mentioned here. RIM had become one of the dominant smartphone makers on the planet by making BlackBerry’s unadorned functionality one of its main selling points: you got a phone, an incredible keyboard, secure email, all in one indestructible package.
The iPhone, in contrast, was not only cool looking, but it used those cool looks to create entirely new ways to interact with a phone—ways that Android engineers either hadn’t thought possible or had considered too risky. By using a virtual keyboard and replacing most real buttons with software-generated buttons on a big touchscreen, every application could now have its own unique set of controls. Play, Pause, and Stop buttons only appeared if you were listening to music or watching video. When you went to type a web address into the browser, the keyboard appeared, but it disappeared when you hit Enter. Without the physical keyboard taking up half the phone, the iPhone had a screen twice the size of virtually every other phone on the market. It all worked the same way whether the user held the phone in portrait or landscape mode. Apple had installed an accelerometer to use gravity to tell the phone how to orient the screen.
A lot was wrong with the first iPhone too. Rubin and the Android team—along with many others—did not think users would take to typing on a screen without the tactile feedback of a physical keyboard. That is why the first Android phone—the T-Mobile G1 from HTC, nearly two years later—had a slide-out keyboard. But what was also undeniable to the Android team was that they 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.
Within weeks the Android team had completely reconfigured its objectives. A phone with a touchscreen, code-named Dream, that had been in the early stages of development, became the focus. Its launch was pushed out a year until fall 2008. Engineers started drilling into it all the things the iPhone didn’t do to differentiate their phone when launch day did occur. Erick Tseng, then Android’s project manager, remembers suddenly feeling the nervous excitement of a pending public performance. Tseng had joined Google the year before out of Stanford business school after Eric Schmidt, himself, sold him on the promise of Android.
“I never got the feeling that we should scrap what we were doing—that the iPhone meant game over. But a bar had been set, and whatever we decided to launch, we wanted to make sure that it cleared the bar.”
This is excerpted and adapted from the second chapter of Fred Vogelstein’s Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution.
This article available online at: