“Any time anything works out, if you don’t acknowledge the huge luck factor, you’re kind of a jerk.”
This weekend marks the launch of a book that I have been working on for the past four years, Androids: The Team That Built the Android Operating System. It seemed fitting to mark the occasion by writing something, because, like, writing is what books are all about.
When I joined the Android team, way back in May of 2010, the first thing I did was get to work. We were in the middle of finishing the Gingerbread release and were just starting on the Honeycomb release, and there was simply a lot of work to be done. When I finally came up for air, after Honeycomb shipped about a year later, I realized that there was an interesting story to be told here. (Not about Honeycomb. There were precious few users, and even fewer devices, that ever saw that release. We don’t talk about Honeycomb anymore. It is dead to us.)
But nobody was telling that story. To be fair, everyone was really busy just working on the platform, and taking time out to go all meta on the topic wasn’t anyone’s priority. But I thought that eventually someone should tell the story. And eventually, when nobody else was doing it, that someone became me.
When I started on the team, Android was… just another smartphone platform. In fact, it was one of several smartphone platforms, and it was far from the most prevalent. There was the iPhone, the Windows Phone (a couple of different flavors, if I recall correctly), RIM’s BlackBerry that owned the enterprise space, some Nokia devices that were climbing up from the ‘feature phone’ category into the ‘smartphone’ space, and there was WebOS threatening to make a grand entrance.
But by the time Honeycomb shipped a year later, in the Spring of 2011, the smartphone market was, increasingly, just Android and iPhone. The other players had either gone away or were at least trending that direction. Then Android continued to motor ahead, and I thought… Why? I mean, I liked the platform and thought it had a lot to offer. But these other companies were solidly in the game, most for many years before Google thought about phones or before Android delivered 1.0. So how did all of that happen?
In other words: Why did Android work?
Thus began the idea for this book: Why did Android work? What was it about the business, the product, the tech, the people, the… whatever that made it possible for Android to succeed, or even survive, when major companies were struggling to stay in the game?
At the same time, I realized that there was also an interesting story about the team itself. Android was not just a product group within a big company delivering a thing. Android was a startup that Google acquired… and then left almost completely on its own, sheltered from the rest of the company. The Android division basically ran as a startup for those first few years, secretive about what they were working on, separate from the other teams and tech at Google, and driving their own schedule, just frantically trying to ship 1.0.
Meanwhile, the people that made up that team were uniquely suited to the goal. These people came from other related OS projects and companies across the tech field and landed on the Android team with the experience and drive to build an OS from scratch in a relatively short amount of time. Which was fortunate, because the window of opportunity was small and closing.
I wanted to learn more about all of these elements, and to help tell the story before all of those early Android folks moved off onto other projects and companies and forgot what happened (because that’s what we do in tech; there’s always something new to try).
And So It Began
So in late August of 2017, I sat down with Dianne Hackborn and Romain Guy and had a conversation. I brought a microphone and recorded the conversation so that I could actually participate instead of furiously scribbling notes. This interview formed the template of dozens of interviews I would do with other members of that early team. I’d record a conversation that ran anywhere from 20 minutes (it turns out that Arve Hjønnevåg is a man of few words) to three hours (it turns out that Jason Parks is a man of many, many words). These conversations would be wide-ranging, but were structured around the following questions:
- How did you get into computers?
This one was interesting because it showed how many people had similar backgrounds (like programming almost since they were in the womb, or getting into programming because they liked video games). But it also surfaced differences, including people that didn’t get into software until college.
- What did you work on prior to Android?
This question exposed some really interesting overlap of other companies and people, like the background that most of the early team had with this specific set of companies: Danger, Be, PalmSource, and WebTV.
- What did you do on the Android team?
This is an obvious one, but it led into deeper conversations of how that they developed actually worked, or why it was important, or how it fit with the other stuff that the platform or the team needed.
- Why did it work? (Why did Android manage to survive/succeed?)
This question was fascinating, and showed both major overlaps in opinion (see the intro to the chapter “Timing” to see what I mean) as well as some widely divergent views that helped me understand the large set of factors that were in play, rather than some simplistic explanation.
Along the way, we’d explore many other paths, including stories from the early culture (some of the same stories arose often; many of the stories are legendary on the team).
Putting It All Together
The book, then, became a combination of explaining what the tech pieces were, how those pieces came together, who the people were, what the business dynamics were, and what the overall mobile/tech ecosystem was like that allowed all of this to happen, both leading up to the formation of Android and to Android’s eventual entry and survival in a brutal playing field with so many huge, entrenched competitors.
Along the way, I also wanted the story to give some flavor of what life is like in Silicon Valley, and in high tech in general. It’s one of the things I enjoy about working in this industry, and in the books I’ve read on tech. Tech is such an interrelated field where the people, the companies, and the technology all weave together in so many interesting ways that I wanted to capture some of that feeling for readers to understand and enjoy.
Finally, I needed to form all of these elements into a comprehensible narrative, which turns out to be… tricky. Describing an inherently multi-threaded, parallel project like Android with dozens of people working on different pieces of it simultaneously is difficult to do in a necessarily single-threaded story. I believe I got there eventually, but it was this part of the process that caused many delays, multiple rewrites, and countless editing phases. I wanted the story to actually be comprehensible, and it took a lot of thought, attempts, and refactoring to make it so.
I won’t go any further into the narrative or the many pieces it covers because, well, that’s what the book is for. And frankly, it took me 400 pages to tell that story, and I’d like this article to be a tad shorter. But I hope this article gives some idea of how and why I began the project, and why the story of how Android came to be is interesting. It’s not about this specific operating system, or about OSs in general; it’s about tech overall, and business, and startups. And it’s about my favorite aspect of working in this field: the people who make all of it happen.
I hope you get to read and enjoy the book. I’d be happy to hear your reactions to it in the comments below (or on Amazon reviews, or Twitter, or wherever). After living alone with the story for four years, I’m happy to finally be able to share it with others.
All profits from the book will be donated to charity.
I will be working for now with two charities I’ve heard great things about: Black Girls Code and Women Who Code. Diversity in engineering, at both the educational and professional level, is one of the great ongoing problems of our industry. It’s great that there are organizations who are trying to help fix the problems by providing additional educational and career opportunities. I’d like to help.
Here are the places where you can currently find the book. I may offer other formats and venues eventually. I’ll try to keep this list current in case people find their way to this article later on.
The book is available in both black & white ($14.95) and color ($29.95) versions on Amazon.com. The links here are for the U.S. site; they will be different if you are in a different country (you might need to search on their site).
I hope you enjoy the book. I had a lot of fun creating it, not a lot of fun editing it, and a horrible time continuing to edit it for a very long time. I’m happy to have reached the end of that road with a story that people outside the Android team can now enjoy.