Evaluation: Androids is a developer commentary observe for the Android 1.Zero period
Enlarge / Dozens of Android team members were interviewed for the book, I can only guess that is what it looked like.
Aurich Lawson / Getty Images
Android will go down in history as one of the most important software projects of all time. Today there are a staggering three billion active Android devices per month, and that number is growing every day. The operating system popularized the way we receive mobile notifications, pioneered the modern app store model, and basically killed the entire personal GPS industry when it introduced Google Maps navigation. As the resident Android Historian of Ars, I was thrilled to hear Chet Haase, a long-time member of the Android team at Google, write a book about the early days of Android development. We’re trying our best to document Android from the outside, but it’s nothing compared to what the actual developers might tell us.
Androids: The Team that Built the Android Operating System is Haase’s new book and is full of stories from the people who made Android. Haase has been on the Android team since 2010 and has been a key liaison between the public and everything the Android team is working on on a fairly regular basis. He often takes the stage at Google I / O to co-host the speech on the Android State of the Union: the talk “What’s New in Android”, in which all new developer announcements are described. He co-hosts the weekly Android Developers Backstage podcast, and then there’s his job as an actual engineer on the Android graphics team.
Androids: The team that developed the Android operating system [by Chet Haase]
(Ars Technica may receive compensation for sales through affiliate programs through links in this post.) Of course, being a part of the Android team, Haase has unprecedented access to the Android team, and his book has dozens of Android team members describing what the early days were like. Haase and the team were also able to unearth a ton of old pictures, so throughout the book you’ll see Android engineers working on quickly assembled stations, tons of test equipment, and weird experimental prototypes.
Androids is a treasure trove of information. While every bit of today’s public early Android information on the Internet has been cataloged to death (you’re welcome), page after page of this book casually distributes never-before-seen Android information. If you’d like a taste of yourself, we’ve republished chapters four and five of the book, and those two chapters alone contain a picture of an early Android demo on a flip-top Cingular phone (Cingular wrote itself in “AT&T Wireless” renamed. 2007), part of Android Inc’s investor presentations, and information on the Google buyout. Almost none of this has been public before, and the whole book is like that. It would be rude to ditch the entire book for information, but androids could aid weeks of stories in the tech news cycle or, at worst, the revision of several Wikipedia articles. (If any of you Android folks have more of this stuff please share!)
The book covers the time before Google Android Inc., when the company introduced a camera operating system for VCs, the acquisition of Android Inc. by Google and the lead-up to the introduction of Android 1.0. It only goes on into the future occasionally. The first chapters are just a wave of nostalgia for old tech.
The book describes the 2006 era Android team as a mix of veterans from Android co-founder Andy Rubin’s previous companies – Danger Inc and Microsoft’s WebTV division – and folks from Palm and the BeOS acquisition. The company had a lot of experience developing operating systems, and in the early days the team wasn’t always on the same page on important design decisions. The factions within the Android team were often broken down roughly along the lines of employment history: danger versus BeOS / PalmSource versus Microsoft / WebTV. Whose approach should prevail? Should the team develop a narrow product or a more flexible platform? Should apps be written in C ++ or Java? How complicated should multitasking and app-to-app communication be?
As it says on the tin, the book is very much about the individual people who built Android. You’ll get biographies and backstories for the team members in each Android department, learn how they found their way to Android, and enjoy some of their custom war stories and office antics from the time they worked on the operating system. If you ever watch developer videos like the Google I / O Fireplace Chats, you will see many household names, including frequent Ars interviewees like Dave Burke and Iliyan Malchev. It’s also fun to hear the staff’s awe of the Android framework engineer Dianne Hackborn, who is described as a “superhero” in the book. Perhaps the biggest compliment you can get was that she was the first person Haase interviewed for the book.
The Android team had to move at a breathtaking pace in the early years as the goal was to keep the iPhone from taking over the world. Many of the war stories from back then are incredible. Some favorites are that the boot device, the HTC T-Mobile G1, had a sound driver that crashed when you tried to play multiple audio files at the same time. So an Android subsystem called “AudioFlinger” was hastily written to collect all incoming sound requests and merge them into a single audio stream that was sufficient to keep the small boot device running. Another gem is that a test script called “Monkey” randomly taps UI elements to find crashing bugs, but one day someone came into the office to find out that the script had dialed 911. Hackborn added the isUserAMonkey () function to Android’s Activity Manager to prevent the test script from taking unwanted actions like this, but the strange name and naughty documentation made this a common source of questions in the Android community. However, if we’re honest I’m still not sure if there are real uses for “isUserAGoat ()” in the user manager or why the sensor manager has a value for gravity on the Death Star. (I suspect that the BeOS people are to blame as well.)
It was also interesting to read about the Android team’s place on Google. In the search giant’s early days, Android was so mysterious that it had to recruit people before they were told what Android was actually doing. Several people who have switched from Google describe how different the culture was and how Android felt to switch to another company even though it was part of Google. At least part of that culture seems to survive to this day, with new ex-Googlers like Steve Yegge also describing Android as if it were an entirely separate company.
Androids: The team that created the Android operating system is now available in various bookstores. If you’re the type who hears directors commenting on a movie, this is basically it, but for Android 1.0 and earlier. It’s entertaining read for tech geeks and really the only way to get a behind-the-scenes look at Android’s evolution.