Android will go down in history as one of the most important software projects ever. Today there are an amazing three billion monthly active Android devices, and that number is growing every day. The operating system popularized the way we receive mobile notifications, pioneered the modern app store model, and basically killed the entire personal GPS industry when it launched Google Maps navigation. As a resident of Ars Android historianI was thrilled to learn that Chet Haase, a longtime member of the Android team at Google, was writing a book about the early days of Android development. We do our best to document Android from the outside, but it’s nothing compared to what the real developers could tell us.
Androids: the team that built the Android operating system is Haase’s new book, and it’s full of in-the-trenches stories from the people who made Android. Haase has been on the Android team since 2010, and he has been a major link between the public and whatever the Android team is working on quite regularly. He often takes the stage at Google I/O to co-host what is essentially Android’s State of the Union address: the “What’s New in Android” lecture, detailing all of the new developer announcements. He co-hosts the weekly podcast “Android Developers Backstage”, not to mention his day job as an engineer on the Android graphics team.
Androids: the team that built the Android operating system [by Chet Haase]
Since Haase is on the Android team, he naturally has unprecedented access nasty the Android team, and his book features dozens of Android team members describing what the early days were like. Haase and the team were also able to dig up a ton of old photos, so throughout the book you’ll see Android engineers at work on quickly thrown together stations, tons of test equipment, and strange experimental prototypes.
androids is a wealth of information. While all currently public early Android information has been cataloged (you’re welcome), page after page of this book casually contains never-before-seen Android information. If you want a taste for yourself, we’ve republished chapters four and five of the book, and those two chapters alone contain an image of an early Android demo on a Cingular flip phone (Cingular would further turn itself into “AT&T Wireless” in 2007), some of the Android Inc investor presentations and information about the Google buyout. Almost none of that has been publicly available before, and the entire book is like that. It would be rude to strip the entire book for information, but androids could support weeks of stories in the tech news cycle, or at worst, refreshes of several Wikipedia articles. (If any of you Android folks have more of this stuff, please share!)
The book covers the time before Google Android Inc. when the company presented a camera operating system to VCs, Google’s acquisition of Android Inc, and the lead-up to the launch of Android 1.0. It only occasionally goes further into the future than that. The opening chapters are just a wave of nostalgia for old tech heads.
The book describes the 2006 Android team as a mix of veterans from Android co-founder Andy Rubin’s earlier companies – Danger Inc and Microsoft’s WebTV division – along with folks from Palm and the BeOS acquisition. There was a lot of experience building operating systems in the company, and in the beginning the team was not always on the same page when it came to important design decisions. Factions within the Android team often split along the lines of employment history: Danger versus BeOS/PalmSource versus Microsoft/WebTV. Whose manner should win? Should the team build a product with a tight scope or a more flexible platform? Should apps be written in C++ or Java? How complicated does multitasking and app-to-app communication have to be?
As it says on the tin, the book is very much about the individual people who built Android. You’ll get biographies and backstories for the team members of each Android division, learn how they made their way to Android, and enjoy some of their individual war stories and office antics from the time they worked on the OS. If you ever watch developer videos like the Google I/O Fireplace Chats, you’ll see a lot of household names, including frequent Ars interviewees like Dave Burke and Iliyan Malchev. It’s also nice to hear the entire staff’s reverence for Android Framework engineer Dianne Hackborn, who is described in the book as “a superhero.” Perhaps the greatest compliment you can give, she was the first person to interview Haase for the book.
The Android team had to move at a breathtaking pace in the early years as it raced to prevent the iPhone from taking over the world. Many of the war stories of that time are unbelievable. A few favorites are that the boot device, the HTC T-Mobile G1, had a sound driver that would crash if you tried to play multiple audio files at once. So an Android subsystem called “AudioFlinger” was hastily written to collect all the incoming sound requests and merge them into a single audio stream, which was enough to keep the tiny boot device running. Another gem is that a test script called “Monkey” would randomly tap on UI elements to spot crashing bugs, but one day someone entered the office to find out that the script had called 911. Hackborn added the “isUserAMonkey()” function to Android’s activity manager to prevent the test script from performing unwanted actions like this, but the strange name and cheeky documentation made this a common source of questions in the Android community. But to be honest, I’m still not sure if there is any real use for “isUserAGoat()” in the user manager or why the sensor manager has a value for gravity on the Death Star. (I suspect this is also the fault of the BeOS folks.)
It was also interesting to read about the Android team’s place within Google. In the early days of the search giant, Android was so secretive that it had to recruit people before telling them what Android was actually doing. Several people who moved from Google describe how different the culture was and what Android felt like moving to another company, even though it was part of Google. At least some of that culture seems to survive to this day, with recent ex-Googlers like Steve Yegge also describing Android as if it were a totally separate company.
Androids: the team that built the Android operating system is now for sale at various bookstores. If you’re the type to listen to a director’s commentary on a movie, this is basically that, but for Android 1.0 and earlier. It’s a fun read for tech geeks and really the only way to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it was like to develop Android.