The iPhone forced Google to start over … or not, depending who you believe

The HTC Dream: the first Android handset to go on sale

The HTC Dream: the first Android handset to go on sale, a year after the iPhone

A pithy quote from a Google engineer working on Android on the day the iPhone was launched has been doing the rounds today.

As a consumer I was blown away. I wanted one immediately. But as a Google engineer, I thought ‘We’re going to have to start over.

The quote, attributed to Google engineer Chris DeSalvo, appears in Chapter 2 of Fred Vogelstein’s Dogfight: How Apple and Google went to war and started a revolution. It suggests that Google had to abandon a Blackberry-style smartphone in favor of a touchscreen one in direct response to the iPhone. This is seemingly supported by Android boss Andy Rubin reportedly saying in response to the webcast of the iPhone launch: “Holy crap, I guess we’re not going to ship that phone.”

There’s just one small problem with this version of events – it may not be entirely accurate … 

A fellow Android engineer who had been working at Google since 2006 has a different recollection. Dianne Hackborn (via OSnews) says that Google had already been working on two versions of its first Android handset, the Sooner and the Dream. The Dream had a touchscreen, the Sooner didn’t, and that the decision to abandon the non-touchscreen version happened before the iPhone launch.

I don’t recall the exact dates, but I believe the decision to drop Sooner was well before the iPhone announcement… though we continued to use it for quite a while internally for development, since it was the only semi-stable hardware platform we had.

The iPhone influence still, of course, cannot be denied. Multi-touch was a huge part of what made the iPhone UI work so well, and the touchscreen keyboard gave us the simple, thin form-factor copied by countless Android handsets since.

Perhaps that’s where Google should really get the credit: knowing who to copy. At the time when the iPhone was launched, smartphone pioneers Nokia, Microsoft and Blackberry were all insistent that hardware keyboards and styluses were the way to go. It seems hard to imagine now, but these companies led the field and Apple was basically this upstart computer company with no experience or credentials in the smartphone field (except the horrific Rokr, a joint venture with now-Google-owned Motorola).

Even after the iPhone was launched, the old boys – who thought they knew better – were dismissive of this incredibly expensive, keyboardless, finger-controlled device. Google, however, saw which way the wind was blowing and jumped enthusiastically on board. They turned their ship on a dime, the way Bill Gates turned Microsoft when he saw the Internet.

So whichever version is true – whether or not the decision had already been made – the iPhone certainly changed smartphones forever, and Google spotted that fact right away.

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  1. Big Wayne  (@ctt1wbw) - 9 years ago

    Well, according to the typical pimply faced, living in Mom’s basement Android fanboy, Android was the first OS in the world. It was the first do everything and anything.

  2. CranApple (@MoreCran) - 9 years ago

    Very little question that if someone isn’t sure of the dates, but perhaps thinks so, they will choose to remember the more defensible position. I like your more important interpretation — Android knew who to follow. I have little doubt iPhone changed their direction. You always have team members walking down tracks that go in different directions. Google got hit from behind by the iPhone freight train by those walking that direction. To their credit, they didn’t laugh it off, they saw what it was. They then got all their resources off the other tracks, and started running in the same direction of that Apple freight train. Very wise people, I just wish we could call a spade a spade (beyond pride, which is tough enough, perhaps people can’t because it could influence pending or future litigation and have been advised it would be better to not mention the truth).

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      Yes, I think that’s the key thing. It’s fact they were working on both approaches; it’s conjecture who has it right about when the decision between them was made; but it’s undeniable that the Android phones we see today were hugely influenced by the iPhone.

  3. zBrain (@joeregular) - 9 years ago

    well, what else would they say… they had to save face somehow…

  4. Well…one “influence” to the Android team is Eric Schmidt, who probably (but we don’t know for sure) was pointing in the right direction since he was on the Apple board by the time.

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      Indeed, though he could still have thought Apple was wrong – pretty much all the other players in the smartphone business at the time did

    • Let’s not forget that Schmidt even joked on stage during the iPhone unveil that Apple and Google should merge because of how blown away he was by the iPhone.

  5. Chris Denny (@dennyc69) - 9 years ago

    Gee Big Wayne, you didn’t mean that did you :) I think the only way the truth will come out is if Andy Rubin comes out and confesses, or tell his side….. however you want to phrase it. I personally think Google did what they thought they had to do to make a competing phone after going through shock at seeing the iPhone.
    In my view Apple made the standard that all phones are made by and nothing will change that.

  6. NQZ (@surgesoda) - 9 years ago

    Android was started WAY before the iPhone ever existed. Yes, they changed it after the iPhone came out, but is progression not allowed? I don’t understand the point of this article. It sounds positive actually because it encourages competition, which in the end, benefits consumers.

    • NQZ (@surgesoda) - 9 years ago

      And let me just state for the record, I am not an Android user, and have never used an Android tablet or phone in my life — I have been iPhone only since 2009.

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      I’m all in favour of competition. I use both iOS and Android. iOS wins out for me mostly because of the Apple ecosystem, but I’m certainly glad both exist.

  7. naturallywicky - 9 years ago

    Android Inc was talking about making “smarter and more aware” mobile devices in 2005, a time at which Apple was already working on their iPhone and iPad projects. But Android Inc devices prior to Google’s buyout were clearly designed in the same profile and train of thought as the Palm Pilot and Blackberry devices. It wasn’t until Google’s buyout and iPhone’s release (and likely the device being shown to the Board, where Shmitt sat at the time) that Android became more iPhone-like.

    People always talk about how other companies invented the modern smartphone or tablet, but even Nokia’s early efforts like the N770 was not sold as a smartphone or as a tablet, it was designed and marketed as a MID (mobile internet device)or UMPC (ultra mobile PC) in the case of Samsung products because thats where Intel was dumping massive funds and development. The result there was the Intel A100 (Stealey) which was Dothan based (think 1st gen AppleTV processor) which lead to Atom (Menlow) and Intel’s current line of SoCs. This is no surprise as Apple DID approach Intel to power the first iPhone, but Intel couldn’t offer a chip cheap enough to include in Apple’s design.

    The fact is, if the iPhone/iPad was not designed, showcased internally, and released then Android would be very different than it is today. Nokia would still be running Symbian, RIM would still be crushing the competition, and Google’s phones would all still have physical keyboards or some form of crappy resistive touch/stylus input. And if Microsoft saw a future in these devices, WindowsCE would have been re-imagined or replaced with what they offer today.

    I am a firm believer that people or companies can create products similar too but completely independent of one another. Human history and evolution tell us that much, but this does not seem to be the case here. There is a clear distinction when comparing where the market was and where it was headed before Apple released their mobile OS and hardware products.

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      I started with the Palm Treo in 2002, and was instantly sold on the whole touchscreen smartphone thing. To be honest, that was pretty phone-like. The XDA Exec I switched to in 2005 was decidedly not! I loved it, but it was more like a tiny computer than a phone.

  8. Magnolo (@imagnolo) - 9 years ago

    I miss the good ole days when it was just Apple Vs Mircrosoft.

    • Yeah, that was fun, good times! When Steve and Bill were each at their helm of the companies. Now its run by the crazy fat baron Harkonnen (from the film Dune) for Microsoft (Although Balmer is being replaced thankfully) and the boring schoolboy/accountant/logistics nerd at Apple – where one falls asleep during Apple events – until Craig or Phil come on to inspire a little more enthusiasm.
      Boring times unfortunately :(

  9. *hint* Google had iPhone prototypes BEFORE the iPhone launch. Remember that Eric Schmidt was part of Apples board. And the board saw prototypes.

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      I’d be pretty confident he would have been under an NDA – he wouldn’t be able to run back to the Android team at Google and tell them what he knew

  10. Joe Belkin - 9 years ago

    “Dianne Hackborn” can’t seem to recall an actual date that they switched – great, an engineer/programmer with no attention to detail – of course, she makes no mention that Eric Schmidt got a look at the iphone YEARS before the actual intro and while she was probably too lowly to meet directly with Schmidt, clearly word filtered to her to work on the touchscreen. So, unless she had/has a memo from someone to work on the touchscreen version before SChmidt ever saw the iphone as AN APPLE BOARD member (nice ethics there Mr. Do No Evil) – the engineer who can cite specifically the date they changed EVERYTHING on the iphone wins versus a person named “Dianne Hackborn.” (plus the guy who cobbled together the initial Android code admits to changing everything has a little credibility than an engineer who has no idea when she worked on something but she’s sure they “invented” touchscreen on a smartphone before apple ….)

    • Ben Lovejoy - 9 years ago

      Touchscreens existed long before either iPhone or Android came along. My first smartphone back in 2003 had a touchsceen. So it’s a no-brainer that Google would have been exploring both paths three years later. The question is simply whether the decision to abandon the Blackberry-esque non-touchscreen version was made before or after the iPhone launch.

  11. The Google engineer claiming that is a liar. We actually have facts regarding this.


Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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