How the Google Phone Works

Google Android Architecture

Customers wait in line to purchase a new HTC G1 at a T-Mobile store in San Francisco.
Customers wait in line to purchase a new HTC G1 at a T-Mobile store in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Google usually refers to the Android OS as a software stack. Each layer of the stack groups together several programs that support specific operating system functions.

The base of the stack is the kernel. Google used the Linux version 2.6 OS to build Android's kernel, which includes Android's memory management programs, security settings, power management software and several hardware drivers. Drivers are programs that control hardware devices. For example, the Nexus One has a camera. The Android kernel includes a camera driver, which allows the user to send commands to the camera hardware.

The next level of software includes Android's libraries. You can think of libraries as a set of instructions that tell the device how to handle different kinds of data. For example, the media framework library supports playback and recording of various audio, video and picture formats. Other libraries include a three-dimensional acceleration library (for devices with accelerometers) and a Web browser library.

Located on the same level as the libraries layer, the Android runtime layer includes a set of core Java libraries -- Android application programmers build their apps using the Java programming language. It also includes the Dalvik Virtual Machine.

A virtual machine is a software application that behaves as if it were an independent device with its own operating system. You can run a virtual machine on a computer that operates on a completely different OS than the physical machine's OS. The Android OS uses virtual machines to run each application as its own process. That's important for a few reasons. First, no application is dependent upon another. Second, if an application crashes, it shouldn't affect any other applications running on the device. Third, it simplifies memory management.

The next layer is the application framework. This includes the programs that manage the phone's basic functions like resource allocation, telephone applications, switching between processes or programs and keeping track of the phone's physical location. Application developers have full access to Android's application framework. This allows them to take advantage of Android's processing capabilities and support features when building an Android application. Think of the application framework as a set of basic tools with which a developer can build much more complex tools.

At the top of the stack are the applications themselves. This is where you find the basic functions of the device such as making phone calls, accessing the Web browser and accessing your contacts list. If you're an average user, this is the layer you'll use most. You do that with the user interface. Only Google programmers, application developers and hardware manufacturers access the other layers further down the stack.

You can change the way your Google Phone works by downloading applications to it. Read about a few of them on the next page.