Android One: Google Takes Back Control Of Android

Earlier this month, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) introduced the Android One platform in India, with three local vendors launching the first generation of Android One handsets. As Google has done with the Nexus program, the search giant is collaborating with silicon vendors and component vendors to create a unified experience across form factors and manufacturers. While the Nexus and the Google Play edition devices are targeted at the mid-tier and the high-end segments, Android One is solely aimed at the entry-level market.

Overview of the Android One initiative

With Android One, Google is offering a turnkey hardware solution to manufacturers, which saves them time and resources in creating a brand new handset. Under the initiative, Google will offer handset manufacturers a list of pre-selected hardware components, which the manufacturers can then choose from. There is no defined rule in terms of hardware, although handset manufacturers are encouraged to include features that are considered essential in the entry-level segment, like dual-SIM connectivity when we’re talking about the Indian market. While manufacturers must meet a minimum hardware criteria, they have free reign when it comes to the design of the handset.

The software side of things will be managed entirely by Google, with no intervention from vendors. The search giant will offer stock Android on all Android One devices, similar to what it does on the Nexus line. Quick rollout of new Android updates has always been a major issue when it comes to local manufacturers, and with Google taking back control in this regard, Android One handsets will be among the first to receive updates to the latest versions of Android. Google has already mentioned during the launch of the handsets that it will be issuing Android L updates to all Android One handsets as soon as it is ready to roll out.

The first wave of Android One handsets include devices from the likes of Micromax, Karbonn and Spice Mobiles, and while internally all three handsets share the same hardware, they all come with a different external design. This, essentially, is the crux of Android One: No matter what handset vendor you choose, you are guaranteed to get a similar experience.

In broad strokes, these devices feature 4.5-inch 854 x 480 screens, 1.2 GHz quad-core MediaTek CPU, 1 GB RAM, 4 GB internal memory, microSD card slot, 5 MP camera, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n and 3G connectivity along with a 1700 mAh battery. They may not be the fastest devices in the world, but Google is not going after benchmark crushing numbers; it is rather focusing on giving the next billion users access to an affordable entry-level handset that comes with a decent set of features. As such, the first batch of Android One handsets cost in the vicinity of $104, which is great value for money considering the hardware they offer.

We say that these are the first wave of devices because Google clearly has bigger ambitions for the Android One platform.

Future growth

During the Android One launch in India, Google announced that while the country was ground zero for the platform, Android One will not be limited to India, and that other countries in the South-East Asian region will have access to Android One handsets by the end of the year. Google touted a host of hardware collaborations with international vendors including HTC, Asus, Acer and others. Notably missing from the list were Samsung, Sony and LG; Google did not mention whether they would be added at a later stage or not, but from the look of things, it seems unlikely as all three vendors have their own offerings in the budget segment.

In addition to international hardware manufacturers, Google has also mentioned that it is bringing silicon vendor Qualcomm into the fray later this year. The addition of Qualcomm is very interesting, as this will be the first time the manufacturer will be offering its SoCs in the $100 segment. Qualcomm recently announced the Snapdragon 210, an LTE-enabled quad-core SoC targeted at the entry-level segment. While Qualcomm has focused its attention in the mid-tier and high-end segments, to an extent that is has an effective monopoly in these areas, MediaTek has managed grab a significant chunk of the market share in the budget segment thanks to offerings like the MT6592, a quad-core Cortex A7 based SoC that was widely available in $150 to $200 devices launched last year and early this year.

The introduction of the Snapdragon 210 changes all that, with Qualcomm aiming at $100 devices with the SoC. It is entirely feasible that Qualcomm makes the Snapdragon 210 available for Android One devices, which leads to an exciting prospect: An HTC designed, LTE-enabled handset powered by Qualcomm for $100. That has the potential to turn the budget market on its head. Whether it actually comes to fruition is something only time will tell, but it is exciting to see how Android One evolves as a platform once it starts becoming available in other territories.

With Android One, Google is offering a great choice to consumers in that they can get a similar experience from different handset vendors. The ability to control the software side of things eliminates a lot of pain points faced by users, and the availability of such features in the entry-level segment will attract a lot of users to make the switch from feature phones in countries like India. The Nexus line has been hugely successful in developed markets, and it looks like Android One will be no different in emerging countries.