Google Android has been a huge hit with consumers since its release. Here, we take a brief look at the operating system's history, and the different versions on offer.

Perhaps one of the first questions you’re likely to have about Android, is why Google gave it this name. In fact, the search giant didn’t. Android was the name of a company Google bought in 2005.

Android Inc wasn’t a smartphone company, nor – at that time – even one that made software to run smartphones. It was a startup founded on the premise that there was scope for a new type of smartphone that was location-aware and could be customised to the user’s needs and preferences.

If you’d heard anything of Android and the people behind it, it would have been because its founder was also behind Danger Inc, the company that made the Sidekick phone for teens.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Google was ready to unveil its first Android phone, but by that stage it was an open secret that it was to be a new smartphone platform. Reading through press reports from that time, there seems to have been little inkling of just how ground-breaking this mobile operating system might be.

Google Android: Apple alternative

That Google wanted to create a bold alternative to the Apple iPhone was clear; but Google had far greater vision than that. Behind the scenes it had begun working with the Open Handset Alliance, a consortium of 47 hardware, software and telecoms companies with the open-source Linux kernel in common. Google Android first went public in late 2007, with the first Android device, the T-Mobile G1, reaching the market in November 2008. The hardware was provided by HTC, the longest-established portable mobile device maker around and still one of the most highly regarded brands.

What was immediately clear was that Android was no rough-and-ready attempt to do something a little bit different with a subtly enhanced look. The interface was clear and uncluttered, while the navigation was fast and to the point. Connectivity was a given, as was the web and GPS location information. It just worked. Overnight, the phone in your pocket went from a useful means of contact to an indispensable information and navigation companion. By late 2009, Android devices represented the fastest growth area for phones. Even Nokia, itself based on the open-source Symbian OS, has had to lick its wounds and retreat from its seemingly unassailable position as the king of the smartphones and into the protective arms of Microsoft.

Google Android:  Which Android are you?

It’s not just the appeal of the new that has led to Android’s success, of course. As well as the alacrity of take-up of these new, untested Android devices, the speed of development has been a big factor. Less than a year after the original G1 handset was launched, Google had unveiled – and its hardware partners started producing – two new generations of Android smartphones. It also began giving them tasty-sounding, but un-Android-like, names.

Android 1.5 was known as Cupcake and brought to the party video capture and direct uploads to (Google-owned) video-sharing site YouTube. Entertainment also got a boost in the form of support for Bluetooth A2DP, so you could bounce music stored on your Android phone to Bluetooth wireless speakers or listen privately with Bluetooth earphones or a speakerphone.

Web browsing has improved with support for cut and paste – something that’s become increasingly important as we share content and links on social networks such as Twitter.

Donut (Android 1.6) was notable for its improved on-device search functions and introduced voice search for the first time. If this feature is of note, the faster hardware and better attenuation of later Android versions is worth hanging out for.

From this point on in Android’s development photo and video galleries were combined, so you could casually flick through whatever visual content you’d saved, but internal storage remained cramped. Surprisingly, there are still a fair few version 1.6 smartphones on the market, so check what you’re getting.

Next came Eclair (confusingly known as both Android 2.0 and 2.1) in late 2009. Battery management was given a big boost. Google’s own souped-up Nexus behemoth was supposed to be the poster child for the Android Market but never quite took off – not least because customers realised they could get perfectly speedy hardware running the same or nearly the same version of Android without paying the premium the Nexus demanded. In fact the ultra-desirable Samsung Galaxy S running Android 2.1 scooped it to become 2010’s device of choice, along with the second big handset hit for HTC in the form of the HTC Desire. The first ‘budget’ Android device, and the first 1GHz phone to hit the UK, it quickly became a bestseller and brought with it a new focus on apps and customisation.

Google Android: Android market takes off

The Android Market nonetheless began to take off, though as owners of Eclair smartphones will be all too aware, direct support for the Market is not a given on this generation of devices. For this, you need to look to a 2.2 Froyo device.
It’s also important if you want to be able to upgrade your device at some stage. Depending on whether you have a plain vanilla Android device or one that has been ‘skinned’ by the operator or handset manufacturer, you may find the DIY upgrade process a painful experience.

Android 2.2 is probably the most popular version of the operating system as we write. It offers direct, over the air updates to new versions of the interface as they become available, as well as incremental feature and security updates you may choose to install. The cameras now all sport flash and digital zoom, and cameraphones such as the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 and HTC Incredible S with 8Mp sensors apiece provide ample reason to fork out for a premium handset.
A leap in hardware from the 400MHz or so of the Cupcake handsets to the 800MHz and 1GHz CPU on which most Froyo devices run means multitasking and background services are now fairly seamless. Root errors, screen lock-ups and general navigation issues are now few and far between. Besides, a permanent inclusion on the Settings menu now lets you manage apps, view available storage and turn off background services such as Wi-Fi or 3G. Standby is now the biggest battery drain.

Gingerbread (Android 2.3) offers marginal improvements over Froyo, but is not so different you should discount a 2.2 device from your shortlist. With the timescales for upgrades bandied about by various operators and handset makers, you may even find a seemingly elderly, soon-to-be-a-year-old smartphone such as the Samsung Galaxy S gets a sudden boost from 2.1 to Google Android 2.3.

Google Android: The next big thing

Aside from yet faster processing and improved Google Maps and web browsing, Gingerbread offers one notable feature upgrade – NFC (near field communications). As with the QR codes before it (and dotted about this book), it’s a technology awaiting its moment in the spotlight. When it arrives, NFC will be a boon for contactless, easy payments and ticketing.

Of course, what Google was really working on at the end of 2010 and into 2011 was Google Android 3.0 'Honeycomb', its first operating system for tablets. Conscious that Eclair and Froyo had not transitioned perfectly in their journey from the sub-4in screen of smartphones to the 5in to 10in displays of tablets, Google has ensured the hardware and graphics acceleration are there for its first ‘proper’ challenge to the Apple iPad.

The Motorola Xoom, is a great cheerleader for Honeycomb, with a 1GHz dual-core processor under the hood and 1GB of onboard RAM. It’s fast, easy to navigate and can keep up with your excitement as you flit about the screen.

Already, rival Honeycomb tablets, such as the Acer Iconia, with yet faster processors, tighter screen resolutions and more adept graphics handling are on their way. If you can contain your excitement over Honeycomb’s arrival, expect more compelling – and potentially cheaper –  Google Android Tablets to march triumphantly into the shops and straight off the shelves later this year.