What is the Android operating system?

Information verified correct on October 22nd, 2016
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Android OS – What you need to know.

The Android operating system was developed by Google, and is based on the Linux kernel user interface. It is designed for smartphones and tablet computers, as it is based on direct manipulation (touchscreen). 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.

About Android

Android is an operating system that aims to offer an affordable and customisable system for high-tech devices such as smartphones and tablets. Since it has been developed by Google, it’s compatible with all Google apps. In smartphone terms, Android holds the commanding position against rival operating environments iOS and Windows 10 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 has been 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.

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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.

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 for business searched in Maps, 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. It included upgrades including 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 as well as 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, and 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 The most recent version of Android, "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.

Features of the Android operating system

  • Interface and design. The interface was designed around the concept of direct manipulation, or in other words, touch screen capabilities. It’s design is simple, with many options to organise Widgets and the ability to swipe between open Widgets for faster multitasking.
  • Voice-based features. Users are able to search Google through voice-based technology. You can also use voice actions for calling, messaging and navigation.
  • Tethering. The Android operating system supports tethering, which allows your phone to be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot.
  • Wireless printing. This feature allows you to print directly from your Android without the use of any wires. You can use any printer connected to Google Cloud, HP ePrint printers, and other printers that have apps in the Google Play Store.
  • Customisable homescreen. This is one of the most defining features of the Android operating system. You have the ability to customise your homescreen to suit your personal preferences, whether you need a very simple homescreen with just a few buttons or a considerably more complex system rich with data sources. It's possible to mimic the look and feel of competing operating environments

Pros and cons of the Android operating system


  • Able to download Widgets
  • High customizability, so you can tailor the system to suit your preferences
  • Available on a wide range of phones and tablets including models from manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony and Motorola
  • Many (but not all) models allow for expandable storage via microSD


  • Updates can vary depending on carrier and manufacturer
  • Phone resale value tends to tumble quickly after release
  • Malware/virus potential for apps not sourced via Google Play
  • Not all apps are available for all phones


  • How do I know which version is available on my device?
    Finding out this information will require a different procedure depending on the device. Check the user guide, or follow these general instructions: Open the device settings, select ‘About Phone’ or ‘About Device’ and select ‘Android Version’ to show the version information.
  • Do I need a Google account to use an Android device?
    Technically no, but you'd be significantly limiting the feature set on any Android phone if you opted to not have a Google account associated with it. Access to the Google Play store for apps is required for it, and many apps and services similarly work on connecting to a Google account
  • Can I receive Android updates wirelessly?
    Yes. You don’t need to plug your device into a computer to receive updates. However it's worth bearing in mind that full Android updates can often be very large updates, so it would be wise to start and finish the update within the range of a Wi-Fi network on a fixed broadband connection rather than via an expensive mobile connection.
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