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What is Android? Here's everything you need to know

This guide is a perfect shortcut to getting familiar with the world's most popular operating system.
Features
By
August 1, 2021
Android stock photo
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

By now, most people know there are two prominent mobile operating systems: Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. There used to be a lot more, but now pretty much every major mobile device runs one or the other. Being that this is a site with “Android” in its name, we might have visitors who wonder: “What is Android?” That’s actually a huge question, and we aim to answer it as thoroughly as possible here!

Even if you’re a smartphone pro, there could be a lot to learn about Android in the sections below. But if you’re new to the world of smartphones — or just the world of Android — this is the perfect place to get up-to-speed on the world’s most popular operating system.

What is Android? Here are the basics

The Google Pixel 5 in hand with display on.
David Imel / Android Authority

Android is a mobile operating system that has been around for nearly 15 years. You’ll primarily find it as the base operating system of phones and tablets around the world. Additionally, there are other operating systems that natively support Android applications, including Chrome OS and Windows 11.

Search giant Google owns Android. However, the system is open source, which makes it freely accessible to anyone, even for commercial use. This makes Android very different from Apple’s iOS, macOS, and Microsoft’s Windows, which are all closed-source platforms.

See also: Google buyer’s guide — Everything you need to know about Google hardware

Android is by far the world’s most popular operating system. Estimates suggest it runs on 2.5 billion active devices across the globe, with over three billion users — or roughly 39% of the entire global population. This dwarfs Apple’s iOS by a significant margin and even tops Microsoft’s Windows, which is the second-most-popular operating system globally.

There are over three million applications that work on Android. Most of these apps can be found on the official Google Play Store, but you can also sideload apps from the web. This variety makes Android phones very powerful and customizable — but also susceptible to viruses and other types of malware.

If you don’t know what some of these terms mean, don’t worry: we’re going to explain everything in more detail!

What is an operating system?

A phone in hand showing Android 12 beta.
Jimmy Westenberg / Android Authority

If you ask “What is Android?” you’re likely to hear back, “It’s an operating system.” That answer is only useful if you know what an operating system is!

In brief, an operating system is computer software that works to integrate hardware and software resources. It allows for different types of hardware to work together while simultaneously providing a platform for various bits of software to work with that hardware and, consequently, other pieces of software.

Related: What is an SoC? Everything you need to know about smartphone chipsets.

If that’s still confusing, think of the analogy of a stage play. To put on a play, you’ll need a stage, lights, microphones, and other pieces of hardware. You’ll also need actors, stage crew, ushers, and other workers, which would be analogous to software. In this analogy, the director of the play would be similar to an operating system, as they would act as a conduit that instructs everything on how to work together. Without the director, you’d just have a ton of unused hardware with a bunch of people running around with no idea what to do.

In the case of smartphones, Android acts as the “director” for the unique hardware in your phone and the apps you’ve chosen to install.

Where you’ll find Android — from phones to smartwatches

The Acer Chromebook Spin 713 display showing apps.
Eric Zeman / Android Authority

When most people think of Android, they think of phones. While it’s true that most Android devices are smartphones, there are plenty of other devices out there with Android on board.

Tablets are the most obvious secondary Android device. After all, they are just big phones, in many respects.

See also: The best Android tablets to spend your money on

Android also appears on smartwatches. If you own a watch that runs on Wear OS, that is an Android-based operating system. What is an Android-based operating system? That’s when someone takes Android and tweaks it to make it something different but still based on the same core code.

Android doesn't just appear on phones. There are a whole lot of systems on which you can find it.

There is also a TV platform, appropriately called Android TV. We also can’t forget about Android Automotive, which is Android-based software that powers vehicles. However, don’t confuse this with Android Auto, which is a way for smartphones to integrate with dash systems in cars.

Finally, there are other operating systems out there that are not based on Android but do support running Android apps. Recent versions of Chrome OS allow for this. That means pretty much all Chromebooks on the market also support Android apps. Starting in late 2021, Windows 11 will also support Android apps.

The early beginnings of Android

The HTC Dream.

Believe it or not, Android started out as software for cameras. Andy Rubin and his team developed Android starting in 2003 by using core code from Linux, another open-source operating system. The idea was to make a universal operating system that all camera companies could use.

However, during the later development of Android, Rubin realized that smartphones were the future. He decided to revamp Android as a smartphone operating system instead. The idea didn’t attract much investment since Windows Phone, Symbian, and other phone operating systems were already dominating the market. Rubin and his team almost stopped development when they ran out of money.

Related: Did you know that Windows 10 Mobile (almost) supported Android apps?

In the end, a generous monetary gift from a friend kept the team going and Google swept in and bought Android for about $50 million in 2005. The Android team worked under Google to develop an operating system that worked well on mobile phones with physical buttons and full QWERTY keyboards.

However, the arrival of the iPhone in 2007 forced the team to go back to the drawing board. They revamped Android again to also work with touchscreens. This resulted in the HTC Dream, also known as the T-Mobile G1, the very first commercial Android phone. It had a touch screen and a QWERTY keyboard, as seen above.

Since then, there have been thousands of Android phones and it is now the most popular operating system in the world.

Android is open source, but what does that mean?

When something is open source it means the copyright owner allows its use for any purpose, without any need for financial remuneration. As mentioned earlier, the core code of Android is based on open-source software called Linux. This means that Android, by definition, must also be open source.

To better understand this, let’s look at the opposite: closed-source software. Apple’s iOS is closed source, which means that no one can use it unless the copyright holder — in this case Apple — gives permission. If you were to obtain the source code of iOS and release it on any device, Apple could sue you for infringement on its ownership.

See also: The best open-source apps for Android

With open-source software, this limitation is gone. Instead, the person or company using the software simply needs to abide by a set of rules related to the licensing of that software. Our own Gary Sims explains these rules in the video above. In brief, this means that their “new” software must also be open source and they must make the code easily available to anyone who would like to use it.

The open-source nature of Android is one of the main reasons it is the most popular operating system in the world. Since anyone can use it for free, it’s incredibly easy for companies of all sizes to create terrific products without needing to invest in creating their own operating system. This is why you find Android in all manners of electronics from all sorts of different brands.

You might be wondering why Google is OK with giving away this product for free. The explanation is actually pretty simple, some aspects of Android you use on your phone are not open source. As you’d imagine, these are some of the most vital apps and services made for Android.

What is Android’s Google Play Service?

The core of Android is open source, which we call “stock” Android. This software lands as part of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). This is Android in its purest, most basic form.

However, the Android you get with almost all smartphones has tons of other software incorporated that is not open source. Most of this software falls under a system called Google Play Services. This brings Google-branded products to Android, including the Google Play Store, Gmail, YouTube, etc.

Related: What is Android’s Google Play Services?

In other words, you can use AOSP software all you like for free, but you can’t use Google all you like. Just like with Apple’s tight control of iOS, Google tightly controls Google Play Services. To use it, you need a license and to agree to let Google earn money from your products.

Android might be open-source, but Google's very lucrative ecosystem certainly isn't.

Even though most of the world closely associates Google and Android, there are plenty of Android-based devices out there without Google Play Services. For example, Google does not allow most of its products in China. If you go there, you can easily find Android phones without Google. There will be app stores, apps, and all sorts of familiar features, but not from Google. A more US-centric example would be Amazon’s Fire tablets, which utilize a custom version of Android called Fire OS that substitutes Google apps for Amazon’s own in-house options.

Throughout most of the world, though, Google is inseparable from Android. This is by design. Android’s dependence on Google earns the company billions.

Who maintains Android?

The Google Store NYC Opening Tour shot showing the Google logo.
C. Scott Brown / Android Authority

The answer to this question has a few facets. In brief, Google employees maintain the core Android experience. They are responsible for adding new features, updating old ones, and making sure Android follows open-source principles.

However, there’s more to it than that. Most manufacturers also “skin” Android, which means they create their own software that lives on top of Android. This is why the Android you find on a Samsung phone and the Android you find on a OnePlus phone function similarly but look very different. Each manufacturer maintains its own Android skin.

See also: OnePlus’ Oxygen OS vs Samsung’s One UI

There’s also the question of distributing Android. Obviously, your phone comes with a version of Android when you first take it out of the box. But how does it get updates? Depending on how you bought the phone, an update could need to pass through multiple rungs. First, it needs to come from Google. Then, it needs to get tweaked by your phone’s manufacturer to make sure the skin still works well. Then, it may need to go through your carrier, because it also usually customizes phones it sells.

This long chain of events is one of the big reasons why Android phones don’t see updates as often or for as long as iOS devices. For iPhones, Apple controls everything. There are no skins and carriers have little ability to interfere with how iOS looks and works. In essence, Apple can push an update to every iPhone around the world quickly and easily with little influence from carriers or other companies. Android phones don’t have this luxury.

Android versions: A brief history

Android 11 stock photo with Google colors.
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

As of today, there have been 18 versions of Android, with 11 major releases. The most recent stable version of the operating system is Android 11. We expect Android 12 to land later in 2021, at the end of August or the beginning of September, which will make it the 19th version and 12th major release.

Originally, Google named Android after “sweet treats.” Each treat name happened in alphabetical order, starting with the letter “C” in 2009. However, Google abandoned this trend in 2019 with the launch of Android 10.

Here are all the major Android releases:

  • 2009 — Cupcake (v. 1.5)
  • 2009 — Donut (v. 1.6)
  • 2009 — Eclair (vs. 2.0, 2.0.1, and 2.1)
  • 2010 — Froyo (vs. 2.2 through 2.2.3)
  • 2010 — Gingerbread (vs. 2.3 through 2.3.7)
  • 2011 — Honeycomb (vs. 3.0 through 3.2.6)
  • 2011 — Ice Cream Sandwich (vs. 4.0 through 4.0.4)
  • 2012 — Jelly Bean (vs. 4.1 through 4.3.1)
  • 2013 — KitKat (vs. 4.4 through 4.4W.2)
  • 2014 — Lollipop (vs. 5.0 through 5.1.1)
  • 2015 — Marshmallow (vs. 6.0 through 6.0.1)
  • 2016 — Nougat (vs. 7.0 through 7.1.2)
  • 2017 — Oreo (vs. 8.0 and 8.1)
  • 2018 — Pie (v. 9.0)
  • 2019 — Android 10
  • 2020 — Android 11

Android 11 introduced several new features related to messaging, privacy, security, and accessibility. However, it looked mostly the same as Android 10 and Android 9 Pie before it.

With Android 12, we expect Google to revamp the way the operating system looks and feels. There will also be even more features and controls related to privacy and security.

If you are curious which version of Android you have on your device, head to Settings > About > Software Information.

Android apps: How you can get them

The Google Play Store logo on smartphone stock photo.
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

Assuming you have a device with Google Play Services on board, the easiest and safest way to get Android apps is to use the Google Play Store. This comes pre-installed on all Google-supported phones, tablets, and other devices. Just open the app and search for whatever game, program, media, or other product you’re looking for. Many of them are free, but some will require payment.

If you don’t have a device with Google Play Services, you likely have access to a different app store. The most common example of this is Amazon devices, which come with the Amazon App Store pre-installed. Another example is modern Huawei devices, which will have App Gallery. Consult your device’s manufacturer if you are unsure as to which app store you should be using.

See also: How to install third-party apps without the Google Play Store

Regardless of your device’s particular app store, you can also manually install Android apps by downloading them from the open web. This is called “sideloading.” Generally, this practice is safe. However, there is an inherent security risk to sideloading apps as they do not need to meet the safety requirements enacted by app stores. As such, you should only sideload apps from trustworthy sources.

If you are looking for some suggestions of apps you should install, we have plenty of articles to help with that:

Android vs iOS: The mobile OS battle

The Google Pixel 4a alongside the iPhone SE 2020 showing the displays.
David Imel / Android Authority

We’ve already touched a few times on what makes Android different from Apple’s iOS. However, we want to point out that the two operating systems have become much more similar than different over the years.

In the early days of the smartphone industry, Android and iOS were wildly different. Each OS offered features the other didn’t. They also didn’t look at all similar. This dichotomy created an “Android vs iOS” culture that still pervades today.

Really, though, there are only a handful of things Android can do that iOS can’t (and vice versa). Google and Apple have been cribbing from each other so much over the years that the two operating systems are closer than ever.

Even after 10 years, the Android vs iOS war rages on, even though both systems are very similar nowadays.

The only distinct difference between the two is how much control Apple has over iOS — and how Google doesn’t have that same level of control over Android. It is impossible to sideload apps on an out-of-the-box iPhone, for example, and there’s only one app store (the Apple App Store). Apple also tightly controls the kinds of apps developers can make for iPhones.

Related: Android vs iOS

By contrast, we’ve already discussed how easy it is for you to install Android apps from other stores or even from the open web. Additionally, Google allows you to choose which apps you use for pretty much every smartphone function, from your browser to your messaging apps to your keyboard.

The advantage to Apple’s model is that iOS is more uniform, safer, and allows devices to see updates for long periods of time. The downside, of course, is that the user doesn’t have as much say as to what they can do with their device.

If you are moving from an iPhone to Android, we also have a guide to help with that transition, as you can see here.


If you came to this article asking yourself, “What is Android?”, we hope you’ve found your answer! Be sure to bookmark this page, as we will update it with new information regarding Android versions as they launch.