How Verizon & DROID Made Android Popular

11 Mins read

Android has been pretty popular for the better part of the last decade. Sporting more than 80-percent market share worldwide for most of that time.

But it was not always that way.

Back in 2009, something happened that made Android popular and started its ascent to the top of the smartphone industry.

That was Verizon and Motorola releasing the DROID, and making sure it was an “iPhone Killer”.

In 2009, Verizon needed something to compete with the AT&T-exclusive iPhone

A decade ago, the smartphone market looked very different compared to now. People were still unsure about the iPhone and whether it could become the market leader (seems kind of silly, in hindsight). There was also a lot more competition from other smartphone operating systems. As well as the fact that most people were still using flip-phones with no plans to upgrade to a smartphone.

There was iPhone OS (before being renamed to iOS), Android, Symbian, BlackBerry and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. Symbian was the market leader at the time, but practically non-existent in the US. This is despite having 44-percent of the market worldwide. iPhone was in second place with around 20-percent, and BlackBerry at 17-percent. Android occupied 3.5-percent while Windows Phone didn’t even register. Given what we now know about Windows Phone, that’s not that surprising.

Verizon had bet big on the BlackBerry Storm in 2008, and that was a bad bet. After the BlackBerry Storm sizzled, Verizon needed to find another horse to race against the iPhone.

The irony here is that Apple came to Verizon first with the iPhone and after Verizon turned it down, AT&T ran with it. This helped AT&T become the number two wireless carrier in the nation. A position it still holds today. Of course, AT&T has yet to find a phone that it doesn’t want to sell on its network. Anyone remember the HTC First? aka the Facebook Phone? Or the Amazon Fire Phone? Yeah they didn’t work out for AT&T as well as the iPhone did.

In came Google, Android and Motorola. Known as the “Motorola Milestone” outside of the US, the Motorola DROID was Verizon’s new weapon to beat AT&T in late 2009. It was a device that Motorola and Verizon worked together on, while also working with Google on the software. Something you don’t see as much these days.

Verizon was able to license the word “DROID” from Lucas Films (then it was just George Lucas), and it also spent a ton of money marketing this new phone. And by “a ton of money” we mean close to $100 million. This number was never officially confirmed by Verizon, but that’s what analysts predicted at the time. Essentially, Verizon bet the house on the DROID. It paid off big time.

Licensing “DROID” was huge

While it’s unclear exactly how much Verizon spent to license “DROID” from Lucas Films, it is clear it made a huge difference for Verizon.

It really made “DROID” synonymous with Android for the first few years. To the point where many people referred to their Android phone as a “DROID” even though it probably wasn’t one. That was up until Samsung started on the path that it is now on. Around 2012 is when Samsung really started to own the Android market. Of course, now most people are either “Galaxy” or “iPhone”.

What’s also important to note here is the term “DROID” was not exclusive to Motorola. It was used for other exclusive phones that Verizon was selling. Back in 2009 and the early 2010s, exclusives were a big thing for smartphones and carriers. So Verizon had plenty of “exclusive” smartphones with different names, but all usually with the word “DROID” in the name. As many associated that with Verizon. It was also a name that Verizon had already spent a ton of cash on, so it made sense to get its money’s worth.

There was the Motorola DROID, HTC DROID Incredible, Samsung DROID Charge, HTC DROID DNA and many more. For the most part, Motorola had the majority of the DROID phones, with HTC and Samsung (Samsung had the least as it was also pushing the “Galaxy” brand) having a few. But no other smartphone maker was able to use the word “DROID” besides those three. In 2013, Motorola had gained the exclusive right to use the DROID Brand with Verizon, starting with the DROID MAXX, DROID MINI and DROID ULTRA.

At the time, those were the three biggest smartphone makers too. Compared to today, that’s kind of surprising. Samsung is still one of the biggest (either one or two, depending on when you look at the market share numbers) with HTC and Motorola struggling to stay alive at this point. It’s a little sad considering HTC and Motorola (along with Samsung) were basically the “founding fathers” of Android. With HTC having made the G1 (the first Android phone) as well as the first Nexus – Nexus One.

Looking back it’s clear that while “DROID” helped kickstart Android, it didn’t really help the companies that made those DROIDs. At least not beyond the 2009-2012 period.

Verizon’s marketing machine goes into overdrive

Before the Motorola DROID officially launched on November 6, 2009, Verizon’s marketing machine had already gone into overdrive. Ads for the DROID were everywhere. As it started running tons of ads well before the DROID actually launched, many had lined up at Verizon stores to buy the phone on launch day. I remember walking by a Verizon store on my way to class that day, hours before the store even opened and seeing a very long line. It seemed everyone couldn’t wait to get their hands on the new DROID.

You see, buying phones in 2009 was far different than it is today. You normally went to your carrier store to purchase your phone. Remember, this was even before 4G LTE was even a thing.

Back when the DROID did launch in 2009, Verizon and other carriers had a lot more control over what was running on their network. For example, not only did Verizon collaborate with Motorola and Google on the DROID, but the carrier was also responsible for marketing the phone. Which is why we saw more ads for the DROID in 2009/2010 than we do for most smartphones (that aren’t Apple or Samsung) in 2019.

Looking back at those ads, they weren’t good to be honest. Here’s just one of the many ads for the DROID released under the “DROID Does” campaign.

The Motorola DROID launched with Android 2.0 Eclair, and was the first phone to do so. It also came with a ton of features that you wouldn’t find on other phones. Features, we would probably laugh at today. Like having Google Maps on your phone, or Google Search. Heck, there was even a dedicated search button on the front of the phone.

These ads played a big part in the Android vs iPhone war that kicked off around 2010. Those of you that weren’t using smartphones around that time might not remember, but #TeamAndroid was huge during that period. Many of us had it in our bios on Twitter – this was before Twitter got big too.

The ads from Verizon for DROID made picking their smartphone part of their identity. Something that’s still in effect today to some degree.

With Verizon understood to have spent $100 million (about $120 million in 2019 dollars) on the ad campaign for DROID, the ads were everywhere. Almost every other commercial on TV was for DROID. I remember watching TV in my dorm room at the University of Michigan in 2009, and being so tired of seeing those commercials, so often.

iDon’t, DROID Does

A big part of the DROID marketing campaign was Verizon showing the Motorola DROID could do what the iPhone couldn’t do. Things like “iDon’t take 5-megapixel photos”, “iDon’t customize”, “iDon’t run widgets”, just to name a few. It was clever. Basically playing off of Apple’s love of putting the lower-case i before words in their names. While driving home the point “what iDon’t, DROID Does.” It caught on.

One of the things that DROID does (or did) that the iPhone didn’t, was have a flash. Even in 2009 that seemed pretty crazy. It would be two more years before the iPhone’s camera got a flash.

Many of the things that iDon’t, but DROID Does in this commercial, are things we take for granted these days. But they were huge deals back in 2009. And ultimately what made people want the DROID over an iPhone – other than the fact they were on Verizon and the iPhone wasn’t.

Despite these ads running almost a decade ago, I can still remember the majority of them clearly. They were clever, although some might be considered controversial by today’s standards.

The DROID was most people’s “first smartphone”

When you ask people what their first smartphone was, a lot will say the “Motorola DROID.” Myself, included. My first smartphone was the Motorola DROID (or as we call it today, the “OG DROID”) followed by the DROID 4 then the DROID Bionic. That shows how well the ad campaign worked on me, and also how many people were on Verizon at the time.

I got my hands on the DROID about a month after it first came out, and I was amazed at how much this phone could really do. Since it was my first smartphone, I was coming from a flip phone – the Samsung Juke to be exact. Being able to bring up Google Maps on my phone was huge. Being able to quickly type out a text message was huge. Not to mention widgets. Something that was huge on Android in the early days even though now it’s a feature taken for granted.

It was a phone that I couldn’t wait to show off to everyone. Even though everyone thought I was dumb to pay full price for it (since I was already in a two-year contract on Verizon) and didn’t wait for the Nexus One. Which, in hindsight might have been a smart move since the Nexus One never came to Verizon.

The Motorola DROID was $549 at full retail price. A price that these days feels like a steal for a phone with the latest specs and made of metal. It was also on contract for $199. Although at the time, that felt like a lot of money for contract phones. These were the days where you could walk into Verizon, sign a new contract and get a phone for “free.” Having to pay $199 for that phone was a big change for a lot of people. But at the same time that price got a lot of people in the door and buying the DROID.

The slide-out QWERTY keyboard was another big seller for the DROID. Touchscreens weren’t that great back then. So if you wanted to send a text, or write an email, you needed a physical keyboard. The DROID was perhaps the only Android smartphone to really nail the physical keyboard. Others tried, and never really made it work as well.

Motorola’s DROID became a lot of people’s first smartphone because of the ad campaign. Analysts estimated that Verizon sold 250,000 in the first week, and crossed the one million mark around two months later. In 2009, those were big numbers. Now Samsung does that with almost every phone.

Of course, this was before the market became saturated with smartphones like it is today.

The Nexus before the Nexus

We didn’t know it at the time, but the Motorola DROID was essentially Google’s first Nexus. The Motorola DROID was used to showcase Eclair (Android 2.0 and 2.1), with the Nexus One coming the following January to showcase Android 2.2 Froyo.

The DROID came out in a time when we didn’t really have any bloatware – there was one or two Verizon apps and that was it. It also came out in a time before “skins.” The only real skin we had was HTC Sense – one that I really wanted on my DROID at the time. Those came a bit later. So the Motorola DROID was running “stock Android,” and at the time it was pretty bare-bones. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that I used that everyday for almost two years.

Motorola did eventually come out with “MotoBlur” when the DROID X launched less than a year later – in July 2010. Although it was one of the most hated skins out there. Arguably, even more so than Touchwiz or Sense. It didn’t last that long, however. Only through the DROID RAZR line which launched in the fall of 2012.

The Motorola DROID did a lot for Android and at the time, we took it for granted. We saw a new phone that could do all sorts of things that we didn’t think a phone could do, and loved it. Now, ten years removed from the launch of the DROID, we can really see the type of impact it had on Android. The impact it had on the smartphone industry as a whole.

Why did DROID make Android popular?

For one, it set Android up as an “iPhone Alternative” or an “iPhone killer.” Back in the day, every new phone that launched was deemed an “iPhone killer” even though none of them really “killed” the iPhone. But everyone was looking for something that could bring competition to the market. back then, iPhone was running away and putting companies like RIM, Nokia and Microsoft out of business.

Verizon spending over $100 million on marketing the DROID meant that Android was getting into a lot more pockets. That also meant that there was more word of mouth advertising for Android than before the DROID. This really put Android on everyone’s radar.

In 2009 and 2010, everyone was talking about DROID. Not just the original DROID, but also the new DROID X with its camera bump, no physical keyboard and large 4.3-inch display. Again, now when we look back at 4.3-inches being considered “large” or even “too big” seems comical.

For a visualization of what happened when the DROID launched, check out this video from Android Developers, posted in February of 2011.

This video visualizes Android activations from October 2008 to January 2011. If you watch for around November 2009, you can see the moment that the DROID launched. Going from just a few areas on the U.S. map to lighting up almost the entirety of the map, instantly. After that was the Galaxy S launch, which was not as drastic as the DROID launch.

Without Verizon’s marketing, Android might not have taken off

Verizon’s marketing for the DROID was a big reason for Android’s momentum in the early 2010s, as well as the fact Android has never looked back. Within six months of debuting the DROID, Android overtook iPhone as the most used smartphone, and it has been that way ever since – for better or worse.

After the DROID launched and it was super successful, Verizon and Motorola tried to repeat the success again with the DROID X in July 2010. It was somewhat successful, but perhaps not quite as successful as the DROID. The DROID X did not have a full QWERTY keyboard, but did have a pretty large display, with a camera bump at the other end. This was really when camera bumps first started.

Thanks to the success of the DROID, Android jumped from around three-percent market share to over 20-percent in about six months. That’s a pretty big jump, but it’s also worth mentioning that the smartphone market was much smaller at the time, so gaining market share was much easier than it is today.

Verizon and Motorola would return to this approach many more times throughout the next few years. Going all the way to the DROID 4. And there were a few other DROIDs in there from HTC and Samsung too. It phased out for a little bit, after the DROID DNA launched in late 2012 – that was the first 1080p smartphone with 4G LTE.

In mid-2013, Motorola came back with three new DROIDs, the DROID MAXX, DROID MINI and DROID Ultra. A few more would launch over the years before the last-ditch effort of the Moto Z DROID lineup in 2016. When the Moto Z2 came, DROID was gone and it hasn’t been seen since.

Motorola and Verizon still have a pretty tight relationship to this day. The Moto Z4, is only available on Verizon or unlocked. Verizon also offers almost every Motorola smartphone that is currently being made, on its website still. Some are on the postpaid site while others on its prepaid site.

DROID may have fizzled out, but the memories remain

I still have fond memories of the Motorola DROID. I remember going to Best Buy in December 2009 to buy the Motorola DROID at full retail price, and everyone making fun of me for doing it. But I had no regrets then and I still have no regrets when looking back. The Motorola DROID was a great phone. I’ve used many of Motorola’s smartphones over the years, and that was still the one that I loved the most. That’s really saying something.

The Motorola DROID was pivotal for Android, and without the DROID, who knows where Android and the smartphone market would be today. Heck, we may have had to keep dealing with Windows Phone or webOS might have taken over. Which is a bit funny, seeing as Google’s Android team is made up of plenty of former webOS people, including Matias Duarte.

It wasn’t Samsung that made Android huge, Samsung kept Android huge. It was Verizon and Motorola together that really put Android on the map, and that was almost ten years ago.

It’s be interesting to see how the Android landscape changes in the next decade.

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