1. Cupcake, Donut, Eclair & Froyo
Android 1.5 Cupcake (mid-2009)
Cupcake was the first major overhaul of the Android OS. The Android 1.5 SDK was released in April 2009 and brought along plenty of UI changes, the biggest probably being support for widgets and folders on the home screens.
Android 1.5 ushered in the era of the modern Android phone, and the explosion of devices included favorites like the HTC Hero and Eris, the Samsung Moment, and the Motorola Cliq.
Android 1.6 Donut (late 2009)
Donut, released in September 2009, expanded on the features that came with Android 1.5. While not very rich in the eye-candy department, Android 1.6 made some major improvements behind the scenes, and provided the framework base for the amazing features to come. To the end user, the two biggest changes would have to be the improvements to the Android Market, and universal search.
Behind the screen, Donut brought support for higher-resolution touchscreens, much improved camera and gallery support, and perhaps most importantly, native support for Verizon and Sprint phones. Without the technology in Android 1.6, there would be no Motorola Droid X or HTC EVO 4G — two major phones for those carriers.
Android 2.0-2.1 Eclair (late 2009)
Eclair was a pretty major step up over its predecessors. Introduced in late 2009, Android 2.0 first appeared on the Motorola Droid, bringing improvements in the browser, Google Maps, and a new user interface. Google Maps Navigation also was born in Android 2.0, quickly bringing the platform on par with other stand-along GPS navigation systems.
The now-defunct Google Nexus One was the first device to receive Android 2.1 when it launched in January 2010, bringing a souped-up UI with cool 3D-style graphics. From there, the rollout of Android 2.1 has been relatively slow and painful. Manufacturers skipped Android 2.0 in favor of the latest version but needed time to tweak their customizations, such as Motorola’s Motoblur.
Android 2.2 Froyo (mid-2010)
Android 2.2 Froyo was announced in May 2010 at the Google IO conference in San Francisco. The single largest change was the introduction of the Just-In-Time Compiler — or JIT — which significantly speeds up the phone’s processing power.
Froyo also brought native support for tethering, meaning you could use your Android smartphone’s data connection to provide Internet (wirelessly or with a USB cable) to just about any device you want. Sadly, most carriers will strip this native support in exchange for some sort of feature they can charge for.
2. Android 2.3 Gingerbread (late 2010)
Android 2.3 Gingerbread came out of the oven in December 2010, and like Eclair had a new “Googlephone” to go along with — the Nexus S. Gingerbread brings a few UI enhancements to Android, things like a more consistent feel across menus and dialogs, and a new black notification bar, but still looks and feels like the Android we’re used to, with the addition of a slew of new language support.
Gingerbread brings support for new technology as well. NFC (Near Field Communication) is now supported, and SIP (Internet calling) support is now native on Android. Further optimizations for better battery life round out a nice upgrade.
3. Android 3.x Honeycomb (early 2011)
Android 3.0 Honeycomb came out in February 2011 with the Motorola Xoom. It’s the first (and only) version of Android specifically made for tablets, and it brought a lot of new UI elements to the table. Things like a new System bar at the bottom of the screen to replace the Status bar we see on phones, and a new recent applications button are a great addition for the screen real estate offered by Android tablets.
Improvements to Honeycomb were announced at Google IO in May 2011 as Android 3.1, and Android 3.2 followed thereafter. But Honeycomb basically is regarded as a forgotten version.
4. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (late 2011)
The follow-up to Honeycomb was announced at Google IO in May 2011 and released in December 2011. Dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich and finally designated Android 4.0, ICS brought many of the design elements of Honeycomb to smartphones, while refining the Honeycomb experience.
The first device to launch with ICS was the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The Motorola Xoom and the ASUS Transformer Prime were the first tablets to receive updates, while the Samsung Nexus S was the first smartphone to make the jump to Android 4.0.
5. Android 4.1-4.3 Jelly Bean (mid-2012)
Jelly Bean arrived at Google IO 2012 with the release of the ASUS Nexus 7, followed by a quick update for unlocked Galaxy Nexus phones. Later in the year, the release of the Nexus 10 and Nexus 4 updated things from 4.1 to 4.2 and on to 4.3, but the version remained Jelly Bean. The release polished the UI design started in Ice Cream Sandwich, and brought several great new features to the table.
Jelly Bean is hailed by many as the turning point for Android, where all the great services and customization options finally meet great design guidelines. It’s certainly was very visually pleasing, and we’d argue that it was one of the nicest looking mobile operating systems available at the time.
6. Android 4.4 KitKat (late 2013)
Google in September 2013 announced that that fall’s new version of Android would be named for their favorite confectioneries — Kit Kat bars. A couple months later we saw its release with the LG Nexus 5.
KitKat brought a lighter, flatter and far more colorful look to Android, but many more changes were under the hood. These were the foundation for things like the Google Now launcher, SMS integration with Hangouts, and easier and faster use all around.
7. Android 5.0 Lollipop (late 2014)
Google released Android 5.0 Lollipop with the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9, and it ushered in a new design language and support for 64-bit devices. It’s also the first time Google has provided developer beta previews of the software, so that the apps we all love can be ready when the new version drops.
There were big changes under the hood as well, and a plethora of new API changes in addition to forward-facing features like a new interface. Google has updated its own Nexus 5, Nexus 4 and Nexus 7 to Lollipop, and other companies like Motorola, Samsung, HTC and LG have been relatively quick to follow.
8. Android 6.0 Marshmallow (late 2015)
Along with the new version number and tasty dessert treat we of course will be getting a suite of new features. Android 6.0 gets better control over permissions, allowing you to control what parts of your data apps can access, rather than approve it by simply installing the app in the first place. That’s just the beginning, and features like app linking and the new Assist API will allow developers to build better and more powerful apps. We all love better and more powerful apps.
Google also implemented a developer preview program for Marshmallow, so we expect big things from the big names in Android apps when Marshmallow is released with new nexus phone(s) in the fall of 2015.