One of the many significant announcements at the recent Google I/O developers conference wasAndroid One. The program was formally unveiled with one central goal in mind, reaching the next 5 billion people in the world. These are the ones without a smartphone, mostly in emerging markets like India, China and so on. Google will be partnering with companies in the supply chain to provide a turnkey solution for many OEMs that are currently driving the budget smartphone segment in emerging markets. Android One involves a combination of affordable reference hardware, handpicked by Google, and stock Android software, with updates directly from Mountain View. The first three OEMs to sign up for this program are from India, which has familiar, but rather important, implications for the budget smartphone market.
For explaining how this will affect the market, lets first take a sample of it in its current form. Right now, OEMs like Lava, Karbonn, Xolo, Micromax and Spice often compete with very similar phones. They mostly all have the same set of specifications at the intersection of many price points, appropriate for that set of hardware, which leads us to believe certain things about them.
One, they are already buying reference hardware and modified software from many companies in China, all sporting either MediaTek, Qualcomm or Broadcom chipsets. They all come with near-stock software, but with small modifications in skinning which includes different styles or just icons. Taking the MediaTek example here, if there is one thing that’s standard, it’s the MediaTek camera app that’s on every phone out there running on the Taiwanese company’s own chipsets. This is a custom app written to support MediaTek’s own ISPs for imaging and video, and apart from the mild skinning treatment, it is literally the same on most phones, be it Micromax, Karbonn or Lava. This is the product of a combination of reference hardware from chip companies, and software, without Google’s intervention, and hence based on the Android open source project.
Two, there is business in App bundling. This industry has been a by product of Android’s famous advantage of flexibility. You could literally take AOSP, make modifications, add a few pre-loaded apps as a part of marketing-related deals, package it with the firmware for the reference hardware and ship. This is precisely what the current market looks like, at least from an outsider’s perspective. OEMs have the bundling business model mainly because of the low margins in hardware and the constant price wars with fellow OEMs. But accommodating bundling along with mostly non-updatable software from chip makers makes updates inconsistent for their phones, and in the end, users will be left behind in terms of catching up with Google.
For us consumers, the budget smartphone segment just got even more exciting. Basically, every other OEM will be able to get the same access as, say, a Nexus or previously, a Motorola device. Updates will be consistent and proper, there will be an option to uninstall any pre-installed app we want, and there are murmurs that even the SD card app support issue has been fixed in Android L. From here on, we can expect a consistent Google experience on all Android devices, with no lack in updates and affordable hardware to go along with it. The OEMs on the other hand will still be able to continue their bundling business and even offer a better user experience, by focusing on after sales support, may be. Only time can tell if Android One takes off as Google wants it to, but until then, at least consumers can be assured of a better user experience in these upcoming devices.