Android One is a noble idea. Google’s Sundar Pichai announced the project back in 2014 as a means of providing a known quantity Android smartphone to “the next billion,” meaning the second billion (Android) smartphone buyers. The idea behind the Android One project seemed straightforward: Google would provide the reference hardware and the software, software updates, some marketing and selling. The manufacturer would take the lead for assembling, plus the selling and distribution. We witnessed the Cherry Mobile One, Karbonn Sparkle V, Micromax Canvas A1, Mito Impact and Spice Dream UNO launched into Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. These first generation devices are based around an entry level MediaTek chipset backed up by 1 GB of RAM, powering a screen typically around the 480 by 800 pixel, with 4 GB of local storage plus a MicroSD card slot. The original Android One devices launched with Android 4.4 Kit Kat installed but should have been updated to Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Indeed, one of Android Marshmallow’s features – adopted storage – is rumoured to have been incorporated in order to help Android One customers install many applications. The devices were to have a price tag of $200 at the most. Second generation Android One devices were released a year later in 2015 and offered improved specification.
The original Android One project had three key objectives. Firstly, it would encourage more people to use Google services. Secondly, it would work to reduce low end (software) fragmentation: that is, the variety of versions of Android released and in active service, as Google would be keeping the devices up to date. The idea behind reducing fragmentation is that it would encourage device manufacturers to stop building a device running an obsolete version of Android at launch and never updating the device: Android One customers would have a current or near-current version of Android on their devices. The final point behind Android One was to bring technology to the more remote, underdeveloped regions of the world at an affordable price.
And to a point, Android One has been successful, although on the face of it the project hasn’t quite gone as planned. One major weakness is that Google appears to have relinquished control of the operating system software updates back to the manufacturers. This means that some customers of various devices are waiting a long, long time for their software updates. Updates are coming, but not with the Nexus speed that Android One appeared to promise. This may be in part because sales of actual devices have been disappointing. Part of the reason for this is that Google tried to sell the device almost as an online exclusive: this was a mistake, especially in countries where there is an established distribution network of retailers able to sell devices for cash and where credit card numbers are very low. Even in developed markets, many customers wish to handle a device before buying it. We have also seen newer Android One devices deviating from the original specification and price point.
Eighteen months is a long time in the smartphone world. Since the summer of 2014, we’ve seen a number of developments in the industry. One of this has been a renewed focus on the lesser models of a given range. Yes; the flagship smartphones still capture the headlines but we’ve seen a focus on mid-range and entry level devices. Android One might not have been a commercial success for Google, and it might not have achieved the hoped-for Nexus-on-a-budget devices, but it does appear to have helped push manufacturers into releasing better low end devices. Of course, this was happening anyway: today’s mid-range devices are tomorrow’s entry level devices. Shortly after the original Android One devices were released, Chinese manufacturers such as Xiaomi were working on higher specification, cheaper competitor devices. These devices may not be receiving software regular updates and some do not use Google services, but they do put inexpensive smartphones into the hands of emerging market consumers. To answer the headline question: Android One has not been a runaway success and it appears that a number of promises have been shelved. We might see the project dropped, or perhaps reinvigorated, at the Google I/O conference later this year, but as it stands the project needs work.