Google reboots Android One to boost Indian sales

Google is revamping the specifications for its Android One program in India to inject new life into an initiative which has made little impact on the emerging markets it targets.

Sources told the Wall Street Journal that Google plans to relax the right rules that govern Android One design, giving handset makers greater freedom to differentiate on features, user experience and price.

This is the latest example of Google’s eternal dilemma over Android – enforce strict rules, Microsoft-style, to ensure a unified experience for users and developers, and set quality standards; or expand the ecosystem by allowing OEMs to innovate and differentiate.

And the market has changed since Android was first launched. Then, many lower cost handset makers were glad to have a readymade platform, to launch into the emerging smartphone and mobile web markets without hefty R&D costs. But OEMs quickly started to experiment with their own user interfaces and services, sometimes excluding Google apps from the homescreen, and therefore from the key source of monetization of its OS.

In extreme cases, some vendors, such as Amazon and Alibaba, turned to the fully open source version of Android, without joining the Open Handset Alliance, which sets guidelines for the OS (and enforces some support for Google services).

So it has been tough for Google to control Android, and its fully controlled platforms – Nexus and Android One – have tiny market share, even though the former is useful to showcase the latest features and business models. Android One has a different role, and targets emerging markets, particularly India. However, the emerging handset makers, such as MicroMAX and Lava, are not like their entry level equivalents in 2008, eager for any stepping stone into the smartphone game. Now, even the designers of sub-$100 smartphones are packing in hardware and user experience features that, only recently, would have been confined to the high end.

They need to differentiate themselves to operators and end users, and Android One is not helping them to do that. Phonemakers have complained that they had only one or two choices in most component categories, and Google specified the suppliers. That would help create critical mass and good pricing, and ensured the handsets could run the latest Android releases, but made it hard for the OEMs to control functionality and price, and often delayed launches, according to the sources.

Kirt McMaster, CEO of Cyanogen, which has its own Android OS variant, told the Journal:
“Google tried to define too many parameters in regard to device components that were required for Android One, when Indian manufacturers really value supply chain flexibility.”

India is a huge opportunity for Google to grow the market for its services and adverts – only about 10% of the country’s 900m mobile users have migrated to smartphones so far. So it needs to make a bigger impact on consumers than it did with the first wave of Android One devices, unveiled a year ago by MicroMAX, Karbonn and Spice, all priced around $100. These three products shipped just 1.2m units between them in India in their first year on the shelves, according to calculations by research firm Counterpoint. That is just 3.5% of the $50-$100 smartphone segment in the country, and compares poorly with Xiaomi’s launch in the same category – its Redmi model gained 7.5% share in its first year.

And of course, OEMs do not have to subscribe to the prescriptive Android One to use the Google OS – most Indian OEMs do run Android, with MicroMAX selling about 3m units a month.

Now Google will take a more relaxed approach, which will be showcased in the next few months with a joint launch with Lava. This will allow far more choices of components – five cameras, for instance, and the freedom to buy from most processor makers, including Qualcomm. The initial program specified MediaTek chips, though that rule has already been amended (or ignored) – in August, the Cherry Mobile One G1 handset launched, running on Qualcomm Snapdragon, in the Philippines.

Since initial launch in India, the Android One program has expanded to 19 additional countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco. Google has not offered any sales indications but Counterpoint estimates global shipments have been just 3m to date.

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