The Android multitouch story gets even murkier
There’s been a lot of chatter these past few weeks about Steven Levy’s new Google book In the Plex, and particularly some revelations in the book about Steve Jobs — specifically, that Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted him to be the first CEO of Google, and that Jobs mentored the two founders until he later saw pinch-to-zoom in Android and everything went to hell. The acrimony was so deep, we’re told, that Jobs kept the iPad a secret from Eric Schmidt even though Schmidt was still on Apple’s board of directors while it was being developed. (Schmidt would later step down, of course.) It’s juicy stuff, and it nicely feeds right into the current iOS vs. Android narrative of the day.
But I don’t think it’s as simple as all that — it feels like there’s a little media conflation going on. First, Android very famously shipped on the G1 in October 2008 without any pinch-to-zoom support at the system level at all, which of course sparked rumors that Apple had threatened patent litigation, but as far as I can tell Apple didn’t really have any PTZ patents until October 2010. Just over a year later, the Android 2.0 Droid launched with multitouch support at the system level but no pinch-to-zoom enabled at the apps level, an omission that prompted much hand-wringing, several hacks, and yes, yet another thrilling patent editorial by yours truly.
Of course, that didn’t change much: the Nexus One launched in January 2010 without pinch-to-zoom enabled, and Andy Rubin famously said he’d “consider” adding it but he preferred to use his devices with one hand. All the while Google’s partners like Motorola and HTC were adding in their own implementations of the feature and hyping it as a differentiator — Sanjay Jha even loftily promised that a “majority” of Moto devices would have it, a statement that sounds ridiculous in retrospect. (Are they all going to have screens and batteries too?)
Google finally added pinch-to-zoom to the Nexus One in a February 2010 software update and the entire kerfuffle seems to have blown over — sure, everyone is suing each other over patents, but every new Android device has pinch-to-zoom enabled, which is all that matters from the consumer perspective. It’s table stakes for a touchscreen device — just as it was the instant the first iPhone was revealed in 2007.
So after that history lesson, here’s what I’m dying to know:
*Did the first build of Android Steve Jobs saw actually have multitouch frameworks and pinch-to-zoom? The answer, according to Levy, is yes.1
*If Android 1.0 had multitouch frameworks and pinch-to-zoom, were they actually removed from the shipping G1 after Jobs saw them and got angry? Levy says that’s what happened, but removing the underlying frameworks themselves seems a little over-the-top, no?2
*Did Apple ever actually threaten patent litigation over pinch-to-zoom? If, so, what patent specifically did Apple claim was being infringed, and did it cover multitouch in general, or specifically pinch-to-zoom?
*Is the threat of patent litigation why Android devices in the US shipped without pinch-to-zoom until February 2010?
*What happened during the development of Android 2.0 and the original Droid that made Google think shipping multitouch frameworks was okay?
*Similarly, what happened on or around February 2010 that made Google decide that shipping pinch-to-zoom in Android was okay? Did Andy Rubin suddenly decide that using a phone with two hands was cool, or was there a legal reason?
As you can see, there’s a lot to this story that’s still up in the air, and it’s certainly a lot more complicated than Steve Jobs seeing pinch-to-zoom in Android during a visit to Google and getting mad at Eric Schmidt. I don’t know if we’ll ever know the answer to any of this, but it’s fascinating to me — and it’s equally fascinating that Steven Levy apparently didn’t see fit to recount the entire version of the story in his book.