Android One: One answer to Android fragmentation?

Google's Android One makes sense in emerging markets, but some of the ideas in it would be popular with many Android users across the globe.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Google has kicked off its Android One programme aimed at making better, more standardised low-cost smartphones.

While Android is big in emerging markets, that doesn't mean Google is reaping all the benefit of building it; many manufacturers in developing economies use the basic AOSP version of its smartphone operating system rather than the GMS version, which includes Google's services layer.

This means Google doesn't get new customers for its services such as Maps or Gmail (one of the big reasons behind the existence of Android in the first place). And, at least in Google's view, users also run the risk of having a bad experience with the operating system.

Android One offers manufacturers a leg up with the launch of hardware reference designs, which means they don't have to reinvent the wheel with every new handset. But in exchange they'll be using a stock version of Android with such as Google Play bundled in, with Google delivering automatic operating system updates to customers itself.

It's a good way for Google to regain control over the low-end smartphone market and improve its chances of switching the next billion customers onto its services, and making sure they view the advertising Google sells.

One big question is whether Google should take a tighter grip on Android in developed markets too. If by taking more control Google could, for example, get operating systems upgrades out to users faster, few would complain. As it is, it can be something of a mystery as to when – if ever – some Android devices get updated.

Take Android 4.4 KitKat, for example. The OS was released at the end of October last year, but is currently only installed on 24.5 percent of the smartphones and tablets that run Android. And that number comes from Google's analysis of devices accessing the Google Play store over a seven-day period; there are plenty of Android-powered devices that never go anywhere near Play, so KitKat's share of the total Android universe may be lower.

Variants of Jelly Bean, the release before KitKat, still account for just over half of all Android devices, despite being released in 2012. Even older versions of the operating system hold about a 21 percent share between them.

That level of fragmentation makes it harder for developers to create new apps and harder for users to get the best from their devices, compared to iOS where Apple has kept much greater control over operating system updates and makes sure that the vast majority of customers run the latest operating system weeks after it comes out.

If Google could make the update process smoother and more standardised, it would make Android more attractive.

Similarly, stocking Android without the bloat could find many converts, especially if the price is right; how many vendor or carrier-specific additions to your smartphone software do you really find useful? How much is just junk?

As such, the problems that Google is trying to solve at the low-end of the market also exist at the high end too, although tackling them (and the complicated relationship with manufacturers and mobile operators) is a lot more complicated that offering some reference designs.

Still, the first Android One devices are only just rolling of the production line, but it may not be long before these phones aimed at consumers in emerging markets are being viewed enviously by those in more mature ones.

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