Review: Androids is a developer commentary track for the Android 1.0 era
Android will go down in history as one of the most important software projects ever. Today, there are an astounding three billion monthly active Android devices, and that number gets bigger every day. The OS popularized the way we get mobile notifications, pioneered the modern app store model, and basically killed the entire personal GPS industry when it launched Google Maps navigation. As Ars’ resident Android Historian, I was thrilled to hear that Chet Haase, a longtime member of the Android team inside Google, was writing a book detailing the early days of Android development. We try our best to document Android from the outside, but it’s nothing compared to what the actual 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 that made Android. Haase has been on the Android team since 2010, and he has pretty regularly been a major conduit between the public and whatever the Android team is working on. He often takes the stage at Google I/O to co-host what is basically the Android State of the Union address: the “What’s New in Android” talk, which details all the new developer announcements. He co-hosts the weekly “Android Developers Backstage” podcast, and then there’s his day job as an actual engineer on the Android graphics team.
Androids: The Team that Built the Android Operating System [by Chet Haase]
Because Haase is on the Android team, he naturally has unprecedented access to the Android team, and his book features dozens of Android team members on the record describing what the early days were like. Haase and the team were able to dig up a bunch of old pictures too, so throughout the book you’ll see Android engineers working at quickly-thrown together stations, tons of testing equipment, and odd experimental prototypes.
Androids is a treasure-trove of information. While every bit of currently-public early Android information has been cataloged to death on the Internet (you’re welcome), page after page of this book casually dishes out never-before-seen Android information. If you want a taste for yourself, we re-published chapters four and five of the book, and those two chapters alone contain a picture of an early Android demo on a Cingular flip phone (Cingular would go on to rebrand itself “AT&T Wireless” in 2007), a chunk of the Android Inc investor presentations, and information about the Google buyout. Almost none of that has been public before, and the whole book is like this. It would be rude to strip mine the entire book for information, but Androids could support weeks of stories in the tech news cycle, or revamps of several Wikipedia articles at worst. (If any of you Android people out there have more of this stuff, please share!)
The book covers the pre-Google Android Inc. time when the company was pitching a camera OS to VCs, Android Inc’s acquisition by Google, and the run-up to the Android 1.0 launch. It only occasionally steps further into the future than that. The early chapters are just a wave of nostalgia for old tech-heads.
The book describes the 2006-era Android team as a mix of veterans of Android co-founder Andy Rubin’s previous companies—Danger Inc and Microsoft’s WebTV division—along with people from Palm and its acquisition of BeOS. There was a ton of experience building operating systems in the company, and in the early days, the team wasn’t always on the same page when it came to major design decisions. Factions within the Android team often broke down roughly along the employment history lines: Danger versus BeOS/PalmSource versus Microsoft/WebTV. Whose way of doing things should win out? Should the team be building a tightly-scoped product or a more flexible platform? Should apps be written in C++ or Java? How complicated should multitasking and app-to-app communication be?
Like it says on the tin, the book is very much about the individual people who built Android. You’ll get bios and backstories for the team members of each Android division, learn how they found their way to Android, and enjoy some of their individual war stories and office antics from when they worked on the OS. If you ever watch developer videos like the Google I/O fireside chats, you’ll see a lot of familiar names, including frequent Ars interviewees like Dave Burke and Iliyan Malchev. It’s also fun to hear the entire staff’s reverence for Android Framework engineer Dianne Hackborn, described in the book as “a superhero.” Perhaps the biggest compliment you can give, she was the first person Haase interviewed for the book.
The Android team needed to move at a breathtaking pace in the early years, since it was racing to stop the iPhone from taking over the world. A lot of the war stories from then are incredible. A few favorites are that the launch 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 up all the incoming sound requests and merge them into a single audio stream, which was enough to keep the little launch device running. Another gem is that a testing script called “Monkey” would randomly tap on UI elements to hunt down crashing bugs, but one day someone came into the office to find out the script had dialed 911. Hackborn added the function “isUserAMonkey()” to Android’s activity manager to stop the testing script from doing undesirable actions like this, but the weird name and cheeky documentation made this a common source of questions in the Android community. Though if we’re being honest, I’m still not sure if there are any real uses for “isUserAGoat()” in the user manager or why the sensor manager has a value for gravity on the Death Star. (I suspect these are also the fault of the BeOS people.)
It was also interesting to read about the Android team’s place inside Google. In the early days at the search giant, Android was so secretive that it would have to recruit people before telling them what Android was actually doing. Several people that moved from Google describe how different the culture was, and how 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 like it was a totally separate company.
Androids: The Team that Built the Android Operating System is on sale now at various bookstores. If you’re the type that listens to director commentary tracks 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 developing Android was like.