What is the Android operating system?

Google's response to the success of Apple's iOS platform was to create Android, an open-source mobile operating system found on most of today's smartphones.

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What you need to know

  • Android is the software that runs the vast majority of non-Apple smartphones
  • The software is open-source, meaning that phone manufacturers can customise their own versions to look and behave differently to other Android phones
  • The Android operating system allows for a more diverse range of apps and functionality than Apple's iOS, albeit at the expense of simplicity

The Android operating system was developed by Google and is based on the Linux kernel user interface. Designed for smartphones and tablet computers, it allows users to engage with it through a touchscreen interface. It was released by Google in 2008 with at-least-annual updates that vary in the time that they come to smartphones depending on model and manufacturer.

Android is an operating system that aims to offer an affordable and customisable system for high-tech devices such as smartphones and tablets.

In smartphone terms, Android holds the commanding position against rival iOS by a fairly significant margin, largely thanks to the wide spread of available Android handsets which range from entry-level budget models from makers such as Alcatel and ZTE all the way up to premium models from brands such as Samsung and Sony.

The first Android-operated smartphone was the HTC Dream, which was released in 2008, but since then literally hundreds of handsets have come to market worldwide. In 2010, Google released its Nexus line of smartphones and tablets with the Android operating system. While the Nexus brand was retired in favour of "Pixel" branded phones in 2016, Google's own in-house efforts are always the first to receive major operating system updates.

How does the Android operating system work?

Android is based on the Linux kernel long-term support branch. Its user interface is based on direct-manipulation, meaning it was designed for touchscreen devices, responding to swiping, tapping, pinching and reverse pinching as well as having a virtual keyboard. These functions operate under the use of internal hardware such as accelerometers, gyroscopes and proximity sensors. Android software is mainly used for mobile phones and tablets, but can also be used for TVs and digital cameras, although obviously not every app written for an Android smartphone will transition over to a TV or camera.

An Android device opens up to a home screen, which displays a variety of apps and widgets. One of the key strengths of the Android operating system is that it is immensely user-configurable, so you can make an Android Home screen as simple or complex as you like depending on your choice of launcher and available apps and widgets.

Google also incorporates the Google Assistant, its spoken assistant software on newer versions of the Android operating system. Like Apple's Siri, you can ask the Google Assistant to perform simple tasks for you, but it's also backed up by Google's mighty search engine smarts, as well as the accumulated data Google has collected on your habits to give you more contextually relevant information. While the Assistant launched with the first generation of Pixel phones, it's now more widely available, including for some previous generations of Android OS.

The history of the Android operating system

  • 1.0. This was the first version of Android, released in 2008. It featured the app store ‘Android Market’, a web browser, a camera (however, you could not change the resolution or quality), Google Contacts, Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Maps, instant message, MMS and the Media Player.
  • 1.1. Released in 2009, this version was released for the HTC Dream. Added features included more details about businesses in Maps searches, longer in-call screen timeout default when using speakerphone and the ability to save attachments in messages.
  • Cupcake 1.5. This version was released just two months after version 1.1 and was based on Linux kernel. Upgrades included text prediction, dictionary, support for Widgets, video recording and playback, copy and paste features in the web browser, specific date and time stamps shown in the call log, animated screen transitions and the ability to upload videos to YouTube.
  • Doughnut 1.6. This version was released in September 2009 and included features such as voice and text entry search, multilingual speech synthesis engine, improved ability to view app screenshots in the Android Market and faster access and improvements to the camera.
  • Éclair 2.0–2.1. The fourth version to be released in 2009, Éclair included Microsoft Exchange email support, Bluetooth 2.1 support, improved Contacts options, ability to search SMS and MMS messages, improved zoom and effects for the camera, improved typing speed and animated home screen backgrounds. Google made two more Éclair versions for bug fixes and amendments.
  • Froyo 2.2–2.2.3. This version was released in 2010 and featured improvements including performance optimisation, integration of Chrome’s V8 JavaScript engine into the browser, improvements to Android Cloud, Wi-Fi hotspot functionality and Adobe Flash support. However, this version had various bugs, SMS routing issues and security issues, meaning three more versions would have to be released.
  • Gingerbread 2.3–2.2.3. These versions were released at the end of 2010 and included many changes, the most significant being an updated user interface with more simplicity and speed. It also supported larger screen sizes, had a faster virtual keyboard, new audio effects, support for front facing cameras and an overall increase in performance. Later Gingerbread versions included improved network performance for the Nexus S 4G, improved Bluetooth for Samsung Galaxy S and improved battery life.
  • Honeycomb 3.0–3.2.6. This was released in 2011 and was the first tablet-only update. Motorola Xoom tablet was the first device to feature this new Android version. It had a new holographic user interface, quick access to notifications, simplified multitasking and camera improvements. Later versions had many bug fixes for security, performance and Wi-Fi issues.
  • Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0–4.4. Released at the end of 2011, the Ice Cream Sandwich was the last version to support Adobe Systems’ Flash Player. New features included separation of Widgets in a new tab, easier-to-create folders, pinch to zoom ability, screenshot ability and facial recognition software.
  • Jelly Bean 4.1–4.3. This version was released in 2012 and was aimed to improve the overall functionality and performance of the user interface. The Nexus 7 tablet was the first device to use Jelly Bean, with features such as a smoother user interface, Bluetooth data transfer options, improved camera, enhanced accessibility and multi-channel audio. Later versions included improvements to the lock screen, multiple user accounts for tablets, support for wireless display, group messaging, security enhancements and improvements to the clock features.
  • KitKat 4.4–4.4.2. Kitkat was released in 2013. The Google Nexus 5 was the first device to run KitKat and included features such as a refreshed interface, enhanced application options, wireless printing capabilities and audio enhancements. Later versions of KitKat included improvements to the camera and security improvements.
  • Lollipop 5.0–5.1.1. Lollipop was released by Google in 2014 and introduced Google's simplified "Material Design" look which radically overhauled the basic Android interface look and feel. Notifications were available from the lock screen for the first time, while under the hood improvements were intended to extend battery life and increase overall performance.
  • Marshmallow 6.0–6.0.1. Marshmallow was released in 2015, first on the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P smartphones. It built on the Lollipop design architecture, introducing support for features such as fingerprint recognition and USB-C charging.
  • Nougat 7.0-7.1. "Nougat" was initially only released for Google's own Nexus and Android One phones, as well as the upcoming Pixel phones. While some vendors had experimented with split-screen app support on selected phones, Google made it part of the underlying Android operating system with Nougat, although actual in-app results using this can vary quite a lot. Nougat also included improved power and battery management features, as well as a streamlined update system for future releases.
  • Oreo 8.0. The latest publicly available version of Android is Android 8.0, AKA "Oreo". It brings with it under the hood performance and battery life improvements, as well as picture in picture video, support for autofill from a range of password management applications, a rebuilt notifications system and a refined system settings app. As with previous Android releases, it was initially only available for Google's own branded Android devices, essentially the Nexus 5X or newer, but has now started rolling out to a range of handsets, mostly in the premium space.
  • Android Pie 9.0. Android Pie's naming may have disappointed some – we were hanging out for Android Pavlova – but it's a significant upgrade nonetheless, from its pill-shaped navigation systems to Google's Digital Wellbeing initiative that helps you control your smartphone addiction. While it rolled out first to the Pixel phones, one pleasing aspect of Pie's rollout is that it's expected to come to numerous phones from third-party manufacturers quite rapidly.

Compare contract plans for the latest Android phones:

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