Andy Rubin's Android started life as an idea for smart cameras and morphed into an open source ecosystem that powers more than 400 million devices.
What eventually became Android, the fastest growing software platform to date, started its life as an idea for cameras. Andy Rubin had just left his first job as a chief executive at Danger, the startup that built the Sidekick handset.
“It was one of the first cellphones where you got a real Internet experience including instant messaging and browsing,” said Rubin in an interview in Building 45 of the Google campus as it was being outfitted to handle an expanding Android staff.
During a break in the Cayman Islands in 2003 to ponder what he wanted to do next, Rubin initially “set out to do the same thing for digital cameras, to create the concept of smart cameras like smartphones,” he said.
Upon further study he found the market for digital cameras was flat at about 30 million units a year. “We could give it a boost, but it wasn’t going to dramatically change things, so we rejiggered,” he said.
The idea for an open source operating system for smartphones emerged as the best shot at making a big splash. The name Android reflected Rubin’s lifelong passion for robotics. But back in Silicon Valley potential investors were unimpressed.
“They said he was trying to boil the ocean, that he would need 10 million phones running Android for this to make sense and they rolled their eyes as if that was absurd,” recalled Steve Perlman, a serial entrepreneur who helped introduce Rubin to potential investors and had been his senior at Apple and startups General Magic and Web TV.
At one point, things got so desperate for Rubin he was about to be evicted. He reached out to Perlman just down the street in Palo Alto, Calif., who walked over $10,000 in hundred dollar bills in a manila envelope as the first installment of a larger gift.
“Eventually, he got funding and returned the favor when he got acquired by Google and they paid my rent for next 18 months,” Perlman quipped.
Rubin recruited former colleagues to form his core team at his new startup. Chris White from Web TV was “a trusted innovator in user interfaces” and among the first to see the need to “get maps deeply integrated in the platform,” Rubin said.
Brian Swetland from Danger became “one of the best engineers on Android and created a lot of the architecture and frameworks for it,” said Rubin. “He’s a big advocate of open source and helped us figure out the right licenses to use--he has a great moral compass in open source,” he said.
Former colleagues Rich Miner and Nick Sears had backgrounds at carriers Orange and T-Mobile respectively, assets valuable in creating business and marketing strategies.
Ironically, the team’s decision to use Java but not the Java virtual machine developed by Sun Microsystems later landed it in a high profile court case. Oracle acquired Sun and claimed the Android team infringed its patent rights in a court case where the initial decisions went in Google’s favor.