Earlier this week, we updated our gigantic visual history of Android to include details of every release from the operating system’s 10-year history. I’ve also made the case that Android is now the world’s most dominant operating system and that Google invested in buying and developing Android primarily because it wanted to ensure that Microsoft didn’t take that crown.
Both of those histories are valuable, but they leave one question open: how did Android become so dominant? Like any big trend with a multitude of causes, there’s no one answer to that question. But in this week’s Processor, I wanted to examine one of those causes.
By arguing that Verizon is one of the reasons that Android is now huge, I want to be clear that I don’t believe that its support was a sufficient (or perhaps even necessary) condition for Android’s success. Rather, the carrier ended up acting like a sort of kingmaker.
Back in 2009, smartphone competition looked very different than it does today. The iPhone had shaken up the entire industry, but in the US, it was still exclusive to AT&T. Verizon — which had turned down the chance at that exclusivity — was casting about for some kind of consolation-prize phone for its customers. There was a lot of talk about the “iPhone killer” that seems ridiculous now, but it wasn’t quite so ridiculous then.
And though this is mainly a story about the US side of the smartphone battle, I think it’s fair to say that the US was ground zero for it in 2009. It’s absolutely fair to say that nobody had more power to tip the scales in that fight in the US than the carriers.
In addition to Android and the iPhone, there was competition from Symbian, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and whatever was still left of Palm OS. Each of those platforms had advantages and disadvantages, but those last four were built on old and increasingly rickety foundations.
Verizon learned that the hard way when it bet on the atrocious BlackBerry Storm in 2008, which had the “innovation” of making the entire screen a physical button, so you had to literally click down on the screen to type. By 2009, Verizon needed to try something else.
There were two options on the table. One was the Palm Pre Plus, the second iteration of the webOS phone that fixed some of the problems of the original. As we reported back in 2012, Verizon had put in a big order and promised a big marketing blitz for the Pre Plus.
I can’t really say how much Verizon actually thought the Pre Plus could be the “iPhone killer,” or if Verizon was simply using it as leverage for its other big bet. That big bet, of course, was Google, Android, and the Motorola Droid.
You probably know what happened next. Verizon pushed all its chips behind the Motorola Droid — 100 million of them, to be precise, which was also the dollar amount of the marketing campaign it put behind the Droid. That money came in addition to whatever it cost to license the word “droid” from George Lucas.
The ads from that campaign were completely unavoidable in the run-up to and release of the Motorola Droid. It was so huge that it set the Droid up as Verizon’s iPhone alternative. But it did more than that: it positioned Android as the de facto “other” smartphone to the iPhone.
It doesn’t hurt that the Droid was a good phone, better in several ways than the Palm Pre Plus. But, again, big trends have multiple causes, and just making the better phone isn’t necessarily a sufficient condition for success. It also doesn’t hurt that it had the support of Google, which participated so much in its development that I’ve heard Googlers refer to it as the unofficial first Nexus phone. Palm was left to release its phone later and with much less marketing support. And to be honest, it never really recovered after that.
Anyway, I can’t bring up that ad campaign without pointing out that it was incredibly sexist. Kara Swisher, as usual, put it best in her article from 2009: “Is the New Droid Ad Anti-Women and Anti-Gay or Just Plain Idiotic? Actually, All Three!”
Yup. I mean, just look at this:
Verizon’s misogynistic ad campaign caused a lot of toxicity in the discourse around smartphones. It not only encouraged people to make what smartphone they chose a part of their personal identity, but it did so in a way that encouraged them to denigrate people who made other choices. Google’s more recent “Be together, not the same” campaign was a nice counter to that trend. But in many ways, the damage to the culture surrounding smartphone communities had already been done.
I don’t want to mourn the alternate world that could have come to pass — even though I do think the smartphone market was a lot more vibrant when there were more viable competitors out there. I just want to point out that a thing’s popularity isn’t tied simply to its quality. Especially in the US, phones don’t just succeed or fail based on their own merits. There are always bigger forces with their own motivations putting their fingers on the scales.
Verizon and the Droid didn’t make Android what it is today, but it’s also true that Android wouldn’t be what it is today without them.