Five Years Of Android: The Devices That Defined Google's Mobile OS

Nearly five years ago, a smartphone came out that few thought much of. Little did people know that the device would be a harbinger for the next half-decade of mobile innovation, pushing boundaries of technology and launching a fundamental shift in how people interact with computers.

That phone was the HTC G1, the original "Google Phone." It was a clunky, bug-ridden touchscreen device with a slide-out physical keyboard. The G1 did not sell particularly well. The buzz at the time was over Apple's still relatively young iPhone and varying BlackBerry devices, like the original Bold 9000.

Let's not say that the G1 was the beginning of the Mobile Revolution. There are neither beginnings nor endings in the turning of the wheel of technology. But it was a beginning.

The beginning of the Android Era.

It is amazing to look back at the last five years of Android and see just how far the devices that run Google's mobile operating system have come. From the G1 to the Nexus 10, the hardware, software and everything in between has gone from buggy, crash-prone phones to finely tuned devices that dominate mobile computing. Google and its manufacturing partners have done well in a half decade of innovation. What will the next five years bring?

Google is expected to announce a new version of its Android mobile operating system at its I/O developers conference, which runs Wednesday through Friday this week. Google refreshed its flagship Nexus line in November, and new Android chief Sundar Pichai recently downplayed expectations for major new products at I/O, a change from last year, which saw major launches like the Nexus 7 tablet.

Instead, in a sign of Android's maturation, Google will likely put the focus on devices from its hardware partners, like Samsung and HTC—a sign of Android's increasing maturity as a platform. Let's take a look back at the devices that brought Android to this pivotal point in its history.

HTC G1

Released: October 22, 2008

Hardware: 3.2-inch screen (320x480), 1150 mAh battery (removable), slide-out physical keyboard, 256 MB internal storage (expandable external storage), 192 RAM, 3.2 megapixel back camera.

Firmware: Android 1.0

The G1 (also known as the HTC Dream) was the first of Google's flagship smartphones. At the time it was a bit of a curiosity, mostly interesting for how it introduced Google properties (like Maps, Street View, Calendar and Search) to the smartphone market. The G1 was limited to T-Mobile in the United States.

Motorola Droid

Released: October 17, 2009

Hardware: 3.7-inch screen (480x854), 1400 mAh battery (removable), slide-out keyboard, 512 MB internal storage (expandable external storage), 256 MB RAM, 5 MP back camera.

Firmware: Android 2.0 (Eclair)

Boom goes the dynamite. The Motorola Droid was the first true Android smartphone to be popular with the masses. It was released to Verizon with heavy marketing targeted at what the Droid could do that an iPhone could not, like multi-tasking. The "Droid Does" slogan became a popular part of the geek lexicon and was Motorola's high water mark in the smartphone wars. The Droid shipped with the original Android 2.0 "Eclair" version but was quickly updated to a much more stable version in Android 2.1.

Nexus One

Released: January 5, 2009

Hardware: 3.7-inch screen (480x800), 1400 mAh battery (removable), 512 MB internal storage (expandable), 512 MB RAM, 5 MP back camera.

Firmware: Android 2.1 (Eclair)

The Nexus One was the first Android device commissioned directly from Google to serve as the flagship of the operating system. The One was built by HTC (an altered with HTC's "Sense" skin for its Incredible smartphone) and immediately became the sexiest Android smartphone on the market. The Nexus series has since become known as the "guide" device for new versions of the operating system. The Nexus One also marked an experiment by Google to bypass the carriers and sell directly to consumers through its website. The One was also one of the first Android smartphone to ship with Near Field Communication (NFC) functionality. This experiment did not take among consumers and most subsequent Nexus devices were offered through Google alongside subsidized versions from the likes of AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint. Google did not release a Nexus device for Android 2.2, with updated firmware for the Nexus One serving as the de facto flagship for Froyo.

Nexus S

Released: December 16, 2010.

Hardware: 4-inch screen (480x800), 1500 mAh battery (removable), 16 GB internal storage, 512 MB RAM, 5 MP back camera, VGA front camera.

Firmware: Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)

Samsung really started its rise to the top of the Android pyramid in 2010 with the release of its wide-ranging Galaxy S smartphones. Google tapped the Korean manufacturer for the next two Nexus devices, starting with the Nexus S. The device was the flagship for Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which is still the most-used version of the operating system years after its release.

Motorola Xoom

Released: February 24, 2011.

Hardware: 10.1-inch screen (800x1280), 6000 mAh battery (non-removable), 32 GB internal storage, 1 GB RAM, 5 MP back camera, 2 MP front camera.

Firmware: Android 3.2 (Honeycomb)

Google took a break from the Nexus line with Android 3.2 Honeycomb and went with Motorola for the flagship device of the operating system. Honeycomb and the Xoom turned out to be a complete albatross in the Android ecosystem, never gaining traction with consumers or developers. In fact, Honeycomb was so lampooned for being "half-finished" that Google never even released the normally open source Android kernel code and very few devices were ever made that used the operating system. Honeycomb was supposed to be Google's answer to the Android tablet conundrum. To this point, the only Android tablets that had been released ran some version of Froyo or Gingerbread, Android versions that were suboptimal for large screen devices. Honeycomb ultimately served as the stepping stone between Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich, which married the smartphone and tablet capabilities of Android and made it much easier for developers and manufacturers to create applications for a variety of screen sizes. 

Galaxy Nexus

Released: November 17, 2011.

Hardware: 4.65-inch screen (720x1280), 1750 mAh battery (removable), 16/32 GB internal storage (no external memory), 1 GB RAM, 5 MP back camera, 1.3 MP front camera.

Firmware: Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)

In many ways, Android phones made a giant leap at the end of 2011. Screens started to get bigger (eventually much bigger) and Android got a lot smarter, easy to use and out of its own way. This was epitomized with the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich. Android can almost be categorized into two phases: Android 2.3 Gingerbread and everything that came before and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and everything that came after. Starting with the Galaxy Nexus, Android smartphones have run smoother, been more secure, had bigger screens and hardware specifications that are all almost nearly double what came before.

Nexus 7

Released: July 13, 2012.

Hardware: 7-inch screen (800x1280), 4325 mAh battery (non-removable), 8/16/32 GB internal memory (no external memory), 1 GB RAM, 1.2 MP front camera.

Firmware: Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean)

The first Nexus tablet was announced at Google I/O in June 2012 and shipped a couple weeks later. The Nexus 7 cemented the market for lower priced tablets (next to the Kindle Fire at $199) with smaller screens in the 7-inch variety. From a hardware point of view, the Nexus 7 was not the most sophisticated tablet ever to be released, but it showed that Android has the ability to seamlessly run on tablet-sized screens while also highlighting the capabilities of Jelly Bean as a tablet operating system. Google refreshed the Nexus 7 later in the year to give it cellular connectivity. 

Nexus 4

Released: November 13, 2012.

Hardware: 4.7-inch screen (768x1280), 2100 mAh battery (non-removable), 8/16 GB internal memory, 2 GB RAM, 8 MP back camera, 1.3 MP front camera. 

Firmware: Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean)

The latest Android firmware is version 4.2, the second instance of Jelly Bean (much in the same way that Android 2.0/2.1 were both Eclair). The Nexus 4 from LG was released at the end of 2012 with two other devices -- the Nexus 10 from Samsung (below) and the upgraded Nexus 7. As yet, adoption of Android 4.2 has been minimal as it is an iterative update to what already existed in Android 4.1, with some minor feature upgrades. While many people consider the Nexus 4 to be a superb instance of an Android smartphone, it was criticized for its lack of 4G LTE, of which most new smartphones have included by default. The phone was made available through Google Play store (along with it tablet siblings) and on T-Mobile.

Nexus 10

Released: November 13, 2012.

Hardware: 10.05-inch screen (1600x2560), 9000 mAh battery (non-removable), 16/32 GB memory, 2 GB RAM, 5 MP back camera, 1.9 MP front camera.

Firmware: Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean)

Samsung came back to produce the first branded large-screen (8-inches or up) Nexus tablet with the Nexus 10. The tablet was the first large screen to roll out with a flagship Android update since Motorola released the Xoom tablet with the Honeycomb release in February 2011. 

What will this week bring at Google I/O 2013? Will we finally see Android 5.0? Or is there another update to Jelly Bean (Android 4.3)? We will be everywhere at I/O next week bringing you news of Google's latest gadgets, apps and developer news. Stay tuned.