In nearly a decade and a half covering the tech industry, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing companieswhen showing off their new products. One of the more awkward is the image of Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin on Rollerblades gliding up to the stage to talk about the T-Mobile G1, the original Android phone.
From the over-the-top Samsung Galaxy Note 4 presentation at Radio City Music Hall in New York to David Blaine performing at the launch of the dual-screen Kyocera Echo (the magician’s tricks were far more memorable than the phone), companies have pulled stunts to nab your attention. But this odd moment is one that I can’t unsee.
The G1, unveiled 10 years ago on Sunday, marked the start of a phenomenon that now touches the lives of millions of people around the world. With more than 2 billion active Android devices today, and nine out of every 10 devices running the software, it’s a certifiable force in technology. It helped revolutionize what a modern smartphone could be, bringing the experience to the masses.
It all started with that launch.
“I remember so many cameras there,” recalled Peter Chou, the then-CEO of HTC who took part in unveiling the G1. “I was kind of like, Wow; this is really, really big.”
Given its success today, it’s easy to forget that Android faced a heavy dose of skepticism at the start. The little-known operating system was taking on stalwarts Nokia, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry, and Apple’s iPhone had nabbed everyone’s attention. Looking back, the event now seems like a playbook on how not to launch a flagship phone.
When Google finally took the wraps off Android on Sept. 23, 2008, it partnered with HTC, a little-known company that made smartphones carrying the brand names of other companies. The carrier partner was T-Mobile, half a decade before the Un-carrier campaign, when the company was still a struggling last-place national player. And back then, having an exclusivity deal with the right carrier mattered.
“It certainly seemed like there was an uphill battle,” said Ross Rubin, an analyst at Reticle Research, who was also at the event.
So it was right about when Page and Brin rolled onto the stage that I started wondering where this was all going.
An unusual start
It was a brisk September morning in New York when I walked into the event, located in a studio space housed beneath the beginning of the double-decker Queensboro Bridge. It looked like any other product launch, with rows of chairs parked in front of a stage with a large monitor, only the morning traffic was zooming by above us.
The unusual venue was fitting for the launch of a new platform.
“It was clear we were on the cusp of something major,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data who attended the event.
The roots of Android can be traced back to a startup Andy Rubin founded in 2000 called Danger, which created the Sidekick, a cult favorite phone with a distinctive slide-out keyboard. In 2004, Rubin, who isn’t related to the analyst, left Danger for his follow-up act, a little company called Android. A year later, Google bought it for around $50 million.
Even before the acquisition, Rubin and HTC’s Chou were already working together to plot the next generation of smartphones.
“We discussed the vision of how we could make the mobile internet experience so much easier for mass-market consumers,” Chou said.
Google and Rubin declined a request for an interview.
To get a sense of the power the carriers held, it was T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Cole Brodman, not Rubin, who unveiled the G1.
Then Page and Brin skated up, having made their way across town on rollerblades (beats Manhattan traffic). Brin talked about the first app he wrote for the G1, a timer that starts when you throw the phone in the air. He then tossed it up.