What happened was, in the late stages of my career at Sun Microsystems, as we were sliding into Oracle’s loathsome embrace, I had discovered Android. The programming language was Java, and not a dorky “ME” subset. My employer was saying nice things about it, and I’d long craved something I could both carry in my pocket and program. I discovered it was pretty easy to program and eventually published the Android Diary series in this space, which got pretty lively readership.

Thus, I shouldn’t have been surprised when, shortly after leaving Sun, I got outreach from Google’s Developer Relations org. I was receptive and almost immediately I found myself in Mountain View for the famous Google Interview Day. My first session was with Vic Gundotra, who was a major Google V.I.P. at the time. He opened by saying “I’ve been reading your blog and I think I know a lot about you. What would you like to know about us?”

That was easy. I asked “Why is Google doing Android? Are you serious or is it just a hobby?” (Because at Sun we’d had a lot of hobbies — sideline technologies that we couldn’t seem to give up — and that sucked and I didn’t want to work on one.)

Vic said something like (It’s ten years later and I’m paraphrasing) “The iPhone is really good. The way things are going, Apple’s going to have a monopoly on Internet-capable mobile devices. That means they’ll be the gatekeepers for everything, including advertising, saying who can and can’t, setting prices, taking a cut. That’s an existential threat to Google. Android doesn’t have to win, to win. It just has to get enough market so there’s a diverse and competitive mobile-advertising market.”

I don’t know about you, but I found that totally convincing. And I suppose a lot of industry insiders are thinking “Well of course everyone knew that!” I didn’t. I made it through the interviews and they offered me the job and I had four good years at Google.

I wonder if Vic was right about what would’ve happened if they hadn’t done Android?



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From: Ryan Barrett (Feb 09 2020, at 18:03)

interesting! and funny. the story i'd always heard earlier, around the time of the acquisition, and before Vic and the iPhone, was similar except for the threat: not Apple, but the wireless carriers and their iron grip on their feature phones' decks. there were no app stores yet, so the decks were the only way to get software like Google search onto people's phones.

Google had been negotiating with the carriers for a while, with some success, but they were still (rightly) concerned that the carriers had them over a barrel for the foreseeable future. naturally, they wanted some leverage.

so, they bought Android. they had no intent of actually launching it, at least at the beginning. they just wanted a nuclear option in their back pocket. "listen, Cingular, we don't want to do this weird phone OS thing. we want to be on your deck. it's just our plan B. so let's make this work. help us help you!"

but then it got far enough down the road, and people got attached, and invested, and then the iPhone launched, and you know the rest.

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From: John Beech (Feb 10 2020, at 07:13)

Not a programmer, and never heard of you, but happy I stumbled on your blog because of your succinct style of imparting information.

Re: Apple had Google not done Android . . . as a 'civilian' in the field, I agree 100% with the concept of Apple having a stranglehold on the industry being really bad. Then again, I'm not very happy with Google right now.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your insight regarding Google and Android, well done.

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From: Andrew (Feb 10 2020, at 08:17)

Android's goal is to avoid any central point of failure in which one industry player can restrict or control the innovations of any other player.

https://source.android.com/

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From: Doug K (Feb 10 2020, at 11:13)

I wonder what Apple's pricing strategy would have been, absent Android.

They could not have dominated mobile at the prices they have always asked, as most of the world cannot afford Apple phones. Maybe Microsoft phones would have been the competition..

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From: MJ (Feb 10 2020, at 11:23)

If Google didn’t do Android, it would be an iOS / windows phone world.

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From: PeterL (Feb 10 2020, at 11:59)

Without Android, would Blackberry or Windows Phone have survived? Of course, a Microsoft/Apple duopoly would have also been an existential threat to Google.

(If Vic was the person who pushed for Android, I can almost forgive him for Google+ -- but I think the Android decision was made before he arrived at Google.)

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From: Rambunctiousness (Feb 10 2020, at 12:32)

Google had a quiet investment in Clearwire (pre Sprint merger) back in the WiMax versus LTE days. Android was part of a plan to introduce devices that could do VoIP over WiMax and handover to traditional carrier networks like GSM and CDMA.

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From: Yuhong Bao (Feb 10 2020, at 17:22)

I don't talk about Android in my essay/overview, but I do notice they did Android right when they bought DoubleClick.

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From: C. Birdsong (Feb 14 2020, at 08:55)

I don't really think Apple would've ended up with significantly more marketshare. They expanded as quickly as they could, but were not interested in competing on the middle to low end. On top of that, the iPhone generally started exclusive to one carrier in a market in exchange for Apple fully controlling the software stack. In the US, Android first really went wide under Verizon's "Droid" branding. If it hadn't been there they would've just ended up pushing something else as the Apple alternative – probably Palm/WebOS, as it was the first really solid non-Android competition for the iPhone. This would've been less ideal for Google, but framing it as "Apple would've owned the whole market and prevented us from making advertising money" doesn't really fit how things unfolded, both in terms of the phone market and for advertising-driven businesses built on top of it. (Facebook's doing great and they don't have a mobile OS)

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From: Paul Boddie (Feb 15 2020, at 14:38)

I seem to remember Google's products being rather important in making the iPhone a viable offering in the early days. People tend to forget that the first iteration of the iPhone was mostly a mobile phone plus Web client, with things like Google Maps making the concept relevant to people.

Obviously, Google needed to back a few different horses in case the relationship with Apple soured. Nokia, who could have realised a similar vision with their own technology, were bogged down with turf wars and arrogant management, and wouldn't have been a reliable partner.

Plenty of other companies probably didn't have a coherent technology roadmap: those who had teamed up over Symbian were in need of other options. Android probably came along at the right time for many of those companies.

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February 09, 2020
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I am an employee of Amazon.com, but the opinions expressed here are my own, and no other party necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my professional interests is on the author page.