With smartphones, the times they are a’changin. This happens quickly, as with the digital world in general.
Before Apple was king of the smartphone-cellphone universe, there was Nokia. Before Nokia there were Palm and BlackBerry. Before there were Palm and BlackBerry, there was Motorola. And now there’s Google, which made its name with Internet search and since 2015 has been under the umbrella of newly formed parent company Alphabet.
Unlike Apple, Google makes just the operating system used by its phones, which it calls Android. This gives the phones their generic category name, Android phones. The hardware—the physical phones themselves—are made by other companies such as Samsung, LG, Motorola, and HTC, who license Android from Google.
The first commercially available Android smartphone was the HTC Dream, released in October 2008. Since then Android phones have grown quickly in popularity, in part as a result of their generally lower prices compared to Apple’s iPhone, which was first released in June 2007, and in part because of the dexterity of the Android operating system itself. Android phones took over more than half of the world’s smartphone market in less than three years, by the third quarter of 2011, according to market research firm Gartner.
Compared with other parts of the world, iPhone sales are strongest in the U.S. and Canada. But even here Android phones are making significant gains. In the first quarter of 2016, Android phones owned 66% of the U.S. smartphone market, up 7% compared with a year earlier, according to market research firm Kantar Worldpanel Comtech.
During the past year, the iPhone’s market share in the U.S. dropped from 37% to 32%. Largely as a result of disappointing iPhone sales, Apple’s stock price dipped to a two-year low in May 2016. Apple’s market cap, the market value of its stock, was also knocked off its number one spot by previously number two Google-parent Alphabet.
Elsewhere in the world Android’s dominance is even greater. In Europe Android has 76% of the market, while in China it’s 77%. Windows Phone remains a distant also-ran, with its U.S. market share dropping from 4.3% to 2.7% during the past year.
These numbers will change in the future as new products are introduced. Apple’s lower-cost iPhone SE, which was released in March 2016, is expected to grab market share at the midrange. It’s the same size as the earlier iPhone 5 and 5S, with a 4.0-inch display, making it smaller and lighter than the iPhone 6 and 6S with their 4.7-inch displays. The iPhone 7 is the next iPhone to be released, later in 2016.
But it’s Android that has captured the attention of consumers these days. Even the name is interesting. Outside the digital world, an android is a robot made with human materials. Think man-machine hybrid.
Androids, or droids, play an important part in science fiction, not yet in science. Some science fiction authors and screenwriters use “android” to mean a robot that looks human on the outside but has robotic internal mechanisms. Others, such as George Lucas in the original Star Wars film, use the word to mean any robot. A “cyborg” is also a biological robot, but it doesn’t have to look human.
In the real world, along with smartphones, the Android operating system or variants of it are used by tablet computers, laptop PCs, game consoles, digital cameras, TVs, cars, and wristwatches. For the most part it’s designed for finger manipulation of the screen, including tapping, swiping, pinching, and typing into a virtual keyboard.
Android was originally developed in 2003 by a Palo Alto, California, startup company that received financial backing from Google before Google bought the company in 2005 and took over core development.
It’s based on Linux, the free, open source operating system developed initially by Finish-born Linus Torvalds and first released in 1991. Open source software lets anyone change and distribute the software without charge. Linux in turn was inspired by Unix, originally developed by AT&T’s Bell Labs in the 1960s and 1970s for large mainframe computers.
The kernel of Android itself is open source, though most Android devices also include proprietary Google software for accessing Google services.
One downside to Android is that its relatively open nature means it can be less secure, and more open to hacking, than strictly proprietary software such as iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system. iOS is used not only by the iPhone but also by the iPad, iPod Touch, and Apple TV.