Android is a free operating system that turns a phone into a small computer and, most importantly, connects it to the web. It's made primarily by Google, though others have helped. Android is constantly updating, growing, and getting a new look. In this chapter, you'll learn what makes Android different from iPhones, BlackBerrys, Windows Phones, and other web-friendly devices. You'll get a sense of why it might be right for your next phone or tablet, what you can do with it now, and where it's going in the future.
Say hello to your newest computer—the one that your mom can call you on.
At its core, Android is a version of the free and open Linux operating system, tailored for a smaller, touch-sensitive screen. It's not a single phone or line of phones, like Apple's iPhone. It's not even a single style of phone. Put simply, Android is a bundle of code, mostly developed by Google, that allow phones with small screens and tiny chips to do great things. Learning the ins and outs of one Android device generally trains you to use them all, but there are differences between an Android made by HTC versus Motorola, or even the same phone sold for Verizon's network versus AT&T.
If you're showing off your Android to your friends, you might show how you can hold down one button, say "Pizzeria Due, Chicago" into your phone, and, a few seconds later, have links to call, get directions to, or view the web site for one of Chicago's best deep-dish pizzerias. You can identify paintings by snapping a picture of them with the Goggles app. You can listen to your MP3s or the latest news podcasts, read and respond to emails, and get turn-by-turn directions as you walk around a city you don't know—all at the same time. If you can't do something with the phone the first time you start it, there's a good chance you can get an app (usually free) to do it.
Sure, you can make phone calls, send text and picture messages, and fill your headphones with tunes, but you can do that on most any phone these days. What makes Android different from standard phones, and any other smarthphone, are a few features baked into its core:
Run iPhone-only apps: The iPhone was the first major smartphone intended for personal use, and it has built up a catalog of thousands upon thousands of third-party applications since early 2008. Most of the iPhone's popular applications, and some better versions of them, have arrived on Android. Still, experienced iPhone users coming to Android often have to live without an app or two they really enjoyed, until they find a suitable replacement.
Work with iTunes (officially): There are applications like doubleTwist that can put your iTunes music playlists on your Android phone, but Android phones aren't officially supported by iTunes itself (and never will be).
Work with niche corporate servers: Android supports Microsoft's ActiveSync, part of Microsoft's Exchange server platform, and if you can get your company email working on non-company-issued phones or email apps, you can likely get it working on Android. But certain companies stick close to a proprietary email system, like the BlackBerry platform, and often don't have an Android app or setup method to offer.
Android is customized and changing year to year. Of its own nature, it also has a few new features and concepts that take some getting used to.
Your emails, SMS messages, and other "something new" notifications arrive on the notification bar that's almost always at the top of your screen, and you "pull" down on it with your thumb, like a window shade, to see more details and click on a notification to access the app. Applications don't automatically get a shortcut on your home screen, but can be accessed from a tray at the bottom of your home screen. You can access a universal search bar from any screen, and the three or four main buttons sometimes do different things in different contexts. Most importantly, you don't, at the moment, sync your phone through a primary computer application that handles all your music, pictures, videos, and applications. You download it directly, or access your phone's microSD card, as if your phone was just one big USB thumb drive.
After a few days with an Android phone, maybe after a week of inquisitive use, you'll feel a bit more clued in on how Android wants to get your data to you, and how you can get at the things you want. Want more specific help? Want to see if making the Android switch might be worth your time and money? Good thing there are many more chapters and tips to come, then.