Android One won’t make too many headlines, and you won’t read too many reviews of handsets that emerge due to its existence. But in my mind, it was the most significant announcement made by Google at I/O 2014. In a nutshell, Android One is a new Google project that will provide reference hardware to any manufacturer that wants it. The typical Android One smartphone will boast a 4.5-inch display, an FM radio, a removable SD card, and room for two SIM cards. Google sets the standards, someone else builds it.
And each Android One phone will cost $100 or less.
The built-in efficiencies here enable the costs to be kept low, and moreover, owners of these handsets can look forward to timely Android updates straight from Google. Terrifically, manufacturers and carriers will be able to add localized apps (think banking and messaging programs) without slowing down updates from the mothership.
This single project aims to solve Google’s most daunting challenges in the mobile universe. For starters, it’ll have more control with low-end handsets, which today are sold with outdated versions of Android and unchecked components. No set of standards leads to awful user experiences, which turns users off to Google and Android as a whole. Secondly, it gives Google a head start in connecting the fabled “next billion,” or as was referenced at I/O, the “next five billion.”
Android’s marketshare growth has been nothing short of sensational, but most of its notable acceleration has been in the mid- and high-end device market. Folks like HTC, Samsung, Sony, and the rest have poured millions into making the world’s greatest Android devices. In just a few short years, we’ve seen form factors shrink, waterproof enclosures become the norm, and PC-like gaming performance find its way onto flagship Android handsets. But that market is quickly becoming saturated, and there’s limited growth potential to look forward to. Sure, you can hope that affluent Android owners continue to upgrade in the years to come, but to keep investors happy, Google needs an entirely new demographic to sell to.
That’s where Android One comes in. With efforts like its White Spaces trial in South Africa and Project Loon elsewhere, Google has certainly forked out its fair share of dollars in order to bring Internet access to places that profit-focused corporations have no real interest in. Partly altruistic and partly agenda-minded, the company’s efforts to hold the hands of the markets it needs to penetrate next are well documented.
This, however, marks the first time that Google has provided a strict set of guidelines as to how devices should be built for those in emerging markets. It should be noted that we’re just now reaching a point in the advancement of mobile technology where a project like Android One would be possible. Processors, memory, and wireless chips have finally reached a point where even the most affordable components can be cobbled together to create a phone that’s not pathetically slow. Legitimate outfits like BLU and OnePlus have shown that sub-$150 phones are now decent thanks to falling component prices, and Google clearly sees this as its moment to dictate how its next boost in market share is acquired.
What’s particularly interesting about this — aside from the magical notion of billions of underserved communities finally being able to afford phones that aren’t abysmal — is that Google has essentially no competition in this space. Microsoft’s Windows Phone efforts have yet to provide high performance at equally low price points, and more esoteric operating systems (like Firefox OS) have yet to gain traction. Apple, of course, has thus far shown no interest whatsoever in competing outside of the premium sector.
Extrapolating this thing out, it stands to reason that Google could indeed get the next billion hooked on Android early on. If an Android One device becomes a community’s first smartphone, and it transforms their lives in the way that smartphones have transformed developed markets like North America, the ecosystem stranglehold could provide Google with an entire generations of repeat Android buyers. With each passing year, it gets tougher and tougher to leave whatever ecosystem you’re in. This year, Google outlined its plans to plant Android everywhere — in cars, on televisions, on tablets, on wrists, and within homes.
The first wave of Android One buyers won’t be able to afford things like personal motorcars and Nest thermostats, but that won’t always be the case. Even if Google’s in this strictly to create a new wave of addicts, it’s tough to knock a company that’s reaching out to markets that most everyone else is ignoring. Perhaps this is what’s meant by “win-win.”