What Is Android?

As an Android fan, I get asked this pretty often, even moreso nowadays. People have noticed the Android billboards that Cell C have put up around town, but it's still not obvious what Android actually is, let alone what anyone might want it for.

What Is It?

Android is an operating system for mobile devices. Now before you go to sleep, let's explain that.

An operating system is a piece of software that runs on every computer, including the one you're using to read this on. Most desktop and laptop computers run the operating system made by Microsoft called "Windows". Computers made by Apple run a different operating system called OSX, and a few geeks use an operating system called Linux (which comes in many different flavours - the most popular of which is Ubuntu, made by Mark Shuttleworth's company).

Cellphones are computers too, and they also need operating systems. Most tablets (like iPads) are essentially giant cellphones, and use slightly modified versions of the same operating systems their smaller cousins use.

Phones and tablets made by Apple (iPhones, iPads and also some iPods) use an operating system called iOS. BlackBerry devices run the BlackBerry operating system, and Nokia devices could run one of several different operating systems, usually Symbian or Windows Phone (Microsoft makes aversion of Windows for phones too).

Android is an operating system for phones and tablets that isn't limited to one manufacturer. Like Windows, if you buy a smartphone made by a manufacturer other than those listed above, it's probably using the Android operating system (with a few exceptions).

Most of the devices made by manufacturers like Samsung, HTC, Sony, Motorola and LG run on Android.

Android is a version of the Linux operating system (the one geeks use on their computers) made by Google specifically for phones and tablets.

Why Isn't It Called A Google Phone Then?

That was a decision Google made early on in the development of the Android platform. They've made Android "open source", which means that any manufacturer can use Android on their devices for free, can change it how they like, and can even exclude all of Google's services from it if they want to.

The most popular Android devices do have the Google services built in though, and some of them will even have a little Google logo somewhere on the device, to show that Google themselves have approved it.

Why Aren't the Android Phones Called "Android Phones"?

That's another marketing choice. Each manufacturer chooses to brand their devices differently, and most don't see the need to reflect the Android name in their branding. Some do: Motorola brands some of its Android devices as "Droid", and a few others use clever names that hint at the Android-ness: the LG Optimus and the Nexus One for example.

But what that means is you can't walk into your cellular provider shop and ask them for "The Android phone." like you could for the iPhone. There isn't really one.

Galaxy Nexus
But every generation of new phones includes one put out by Google themselves, designed to be the "pure Google experience" device. These ones always have the word "Nexus" in the name, and their version of Android will always be unaltered by the manufacturer. The current one is called the Galaxy Nexus (called that because the device is actually made by Samsung, who brand their Android phones and tablets with the "Galaxy" name).

These Nexus devices are the closest you'll get to something resembling the Android phone.

Why Would I Want an Android Phone?

One of the most important benefits of choosing Android is choice. If you choose Apple, you get one iPhone - no choice. BlackBerry gives you four or five to choose from. Windows phone gives you one or two options in the South African market.

But Android gives you dozens of different devices to choose from, with a dizzying variety of options to suit what's important to you. Do you want a slick-looking device? Try HTC or Sony. Do you want the best specifications? HTC or Samsung. Want something inexpensive, but still a good smarthpone? Samsung or Hauwei. 3D camera and screen? LG all the way.

Android also offers variety when it comes to tablets. Instead of Apple's one iPad or BlackBerry's one Playbook, you can choose an Android tablet that suits you. There's a whole array from the Samsung Galaxy Note tablet-phone (sometimes called a "phablet") all the way up to the Galaxy Tab 10.1 - and that's just Samsung!

There's also clever things like the Asus EEE Pad Transformer that lets you turn your phone into a laptop!

But What About Apps?

You've probably heard that Apple devices have more apps available than Android devices. Once upon a time that was true, but no longer. Because Android is now outselling Apple just about everywhere, app developers are spending more time developing for Android than they are for iOS. Android also gives you several different app stores to choose from: Google Play, Amazon, Getjar and network app stores, as well as allowing you download apps over the web and install them manually. You can't do any of that on an Apple device - it's iTunes or nothing.

Apps optimised for tablets are still lagging behind a bit. Android tablets might be selling quite well here in South Africa, but overseas they're generally not doing very well compared to the iPad. That's changing, but it means that apps for Android tablets aren't always as nice as their iOS counterparts.

What About Data Plans?

The thing about smartphones is they need data.

In the South African market, BlackBerry still holds a corner on the market of unlimited on-device data usage. With the exception of one special offer by Nashua Mobile for a handful of Nokia devices, you can't get unlimited data for your non-BlackBerry device (either Android or iPhone) in South Africa yet.

That's probably why BlackBerry is still the top-selling smartphone in SA (despite the fact that it's not doing very well in most of the rest of the world).

But that will change. Mobile data is getting cheaper all the time, and it's just a matter of time before unlimited plans are extended to other devices.

What's All This About Honeycombs and Ice Cream?

You might have heard Android fans talking about things like "Gingerbread" and "Ice Cream Sandwich" and been completely baffled by it. That's understandable, but it's not really that complicated.

Every time Google releases a major update to the Android operating system (which they do once or twice a year) they give the update a code-name. The names they choose are in alphabetical order, and they're always named after a sweet treat, because that's more fun than version numbers and whatnot.
The Android Garden at the Googleplex

  • Version 1.5: Cupcake (the third version of Android to be released, but the first version to use the naming convention)
  • 1.6: Donut
  • 2.0: Eclair
  • 2.2: Froyo (short for "frozen yoghurt")
  • 2.3: Gingerbread
  • 3.0: Honeycomb (this version is only for tablets)
  • 4.0: Ice Cream Sandwich (for phones and tablets)
As of right now, if your Android device is running anything older than Gingerbread it's pretty out of date. It's time to ask your manufacturer for a software update (which should happen automatically) or to start thinking about upgrading your device. It's not the end of the world, but some newer apps might not run properly (or at all) on your device.

Rumour has it the next version will be codenamed "Jelly Bean".

Should I Get An Android Device?

Yes, I would recommend it.

iPhones are a good choice too, even if they're technologically behind Android and a bit overpriced, they are beautiful. When you pay extra for that iPhone, you're paying for the Apple logo.

BlackBerry is also a good choice, especially for students. The unlimited data makes it worthwhile for a lot of people, even if the hardware is a year or two out of date.

If labels aren't a big deal for you, and you're okay with adding a data bundle to your cellphone account, Android is the way to go. You won't need to compromise on anything, not even the beautiful design.

Need help deciding on which Android device to get? Drop me a comment below!

1 comment:

  1. I get asked this pretty often, E Ledden even moreso nowadays. People have noticed the Android billboards that Cell C have put up around town,