20th Jul 2015
Last year on at the Google I/O, Sundar Pichai, Google’s SVP of Android & Chrome, took the media by storm when he announced the Android One initiative. For the first time, the dream of having a $100 Nexus-like device with regular software updates sounded like a reality. But that dream didn’t really ship well. Fast-forward it to today and you’ll find Android One was a dud in India.
Pichai’s plan to put Android smartphones in the hands of next billion buyers in developing countries seemed perfect on paper. Google would release a new Android hardware and software reference platform, thus eliminating the need for domestic brands to invest in design, research and finding the right components. In return, Google would be able to deliver faster software updates as the hardware has been predefined by them. This also helps them to indirectly control Android’s fragmentation problem. Google's focus on providing regular software updates also enforced other companies to prioritise the same. The central idea of Android One was to deliver a usable smartphone experience at an affordable price with minimum hardware requirements.
As we’ve seen, India became the first country to receive Android One smartphones on September 2014. Google introduced three devices with country’s local players, namely — Micromax, Spice, and Karbonn. The devices were priced tightly between Rs. 6,200 - Rs. 6,500 ($100 approx). For that price, Google offered the following specifications:
- 4.5-inch (480x854 pixels) IPS FWVGA display.
- Android 4.4 KitKat.
- 1.3 GHz quad-core MediaTek processor.
- 1 GB of RAM.
- 4 GB of inbuilt storage; expandable storage.
- 5 megapixel rear camera with LED flash and a 2-megapixel front camera.
- Dual-SIM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, GPRS/ EDGE, 3G.
- 1700 mAh battery.
While the specs sheet did not excite geeks, it was sufficient for a first time smartphone user. With the advent of Android 5.0 Lollipop, it became evident that an Android phone requires 2 GB RAM to work properly. For a company that baked both Android One and Lollipop under one roof, it seemed a little shortsighted of Google to ship Android One with barebone specs. Or they could have optimised the software.
What Google didn't expect was that the Indian market would drastically change by the time Android One would become even remotely popular. Chinese giant Xiaomi entered the Indian market in July last year with the Mi3. For Rs 14,000, the handset offered no compromise hardware specifications. In comparison, what the Mi 3 offered could be found in smartphones priced twice as much, like Samsung’s Galaxy S4 or the Nexus 5 (Rs. 30,000 at that time).
Yes, the Xiaomi Mi3 wasn’t making promises of timely software updates, but if you look at Google, they too didn’t really stick to their promise (more on that later). And sales of Mi3 tell you a different story altogether. Consumers aren’t worried if they’ll be getting timely software updates and would trade that for feature-heavy, bang-for-the-buck smartphones.
Motorola had a headstart as it was the first to storm the market with first-gen of Moto G in February 2014, which again sold hotcakes on the concept of an affordable smartphone with not-so-many compromises. In what would be a blow to the Android One initiative, the phone offered near stock UI coupled with better specs than Android One (the biggest irony being Motorola was a Google-owned company back then). Not to forget, better looks. If that wasn’t enough, Asus too bought the Zenfone 5, which fell in the same category of the Moto G.
These three phones together can be credited for bringing the trend of 'good affordable Android phones' in India. Although not as cheap as the Android One, Motorola's phones sold more than all the three Android One handsets combined. According to research firm Convergence Catalyst, the total number of Android One handsets sold in India is at less than a million. They only contribute about 2% to 2.5% of the total smartphones sold since the launch. On the other hand, Xiaomi alone itself sold more than a million Mi3 handsets in India. Motorola too sold a million units (mostly of the Moto G) during the time.
Another miss for Google was not launching the handsets in retail stores simultaneously with the online launch. India’s leading offline retailers boycotted Google due to their online-only-launch. Planet M, Croma, Sangeetha Mobiles, Future Group, Reliance Retail, etc. were a part of this boycott initiative and decided not to stock any of the three handsets at their stores (totaling 1,800 of them) anywhere in the country. “Since Android One decided not to sell in physical stores during its launch, we as part of the modern trade, have decided not to stock Android One either,” said Sangeetha Mobiles MD Subhash Chandra. The retailers were right on their part if you also look at the meager margin shares. Google was offering only 3%-4% margin whereas the retailers earn near to 9%-10% on other handsets.
Google’s goal for Android One as Sundar Pichai said was to "to try and reach the next 5 billion people. And India accounts for a substantial portion of the share. Android One was conceived deeply with India in mind." That said, our country still hasn't transitioned to the model of buying online-only. Only 12% of smartphones are bought in India through e-commerce portals. And if India is so crucial to Google's Android One initiative, then the company needs to make sure that their handsets are sold in retail stores as well. Only a quarter of the country's population has access to the Internet, so if you’re trying to sell an affordable smartphone for the common man, then it better be sold where he buys it from — Retail stores. The majority of Google's next billion users aren't going to buying an affordable phone online.
Another bummer from Google was the promise of timely software updates. The company started rolling out the Android 5.0 Lollipop update to the beloved Nexus-family of devices beginning from November 2014, right after it's official launch. Guess when Android One devices got the update? After 3 painfully long months in February 2015. So much so for Google's promise of Android One being one of the "some of the first devices to be updated to Android Lollipop". If Google themselves can't deliver timely software updates to their own devices, then I wonder who can?
In theory, Google's initiative had no loopholes. They just need a robust execution plan for a country like India. The market for affordable devices is packed more than ever. Finding the right balance between good specs, competitive pricing and wide-availability in retail stores will be crucial for Google's next wave of Android One devices. And of course, sticking to their promise of timely software updates this time. Buyers today care more about getting a faster processor, higher megapixel camera and bigger screens, but at the same time they need it to be affordable. If Google markets themselves offline and fulfil buyer needs, they might still have a chance with the Android One initiative.
Why Android One Didn't Turn Out To Be The 'One' Google Needed It To Be
A plan that looked great on paper, turned out to be dud in reality.
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