With Android One, Google puts itself firmly back in the OS' driving seat

Google is bringing Android back under its control thanks to a new hardware and software combination.

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How Android One will look. Image: Google

Google today unveiled Android One, a smartphone platform intended to give Android a new edge in emerging markets.

Android One puts Google in the driving seat like never before in determining how users experience its operating system.

Under Android One, Google has developed its reference hardware designs — meaning OEMs no longer have to develop and test their own smartphones; they just pick up Google's ready-to-wear versions and get manufacturing. Google already has three local Indian smartphone makers signed up to do just that — Karbonn, Spice, and Micromax — all soon be be selling Google-designed, Android One-powered devices for around $100.

Android One uses a stock version of Android, as seen on its Nexus products — meaning no UI customisation is possible — but Google has graciously offered to let OEMs and mobile operators add their own apps to handsets running the OS. The operators don't seem to mind the disintermediation much, and have teamed up with Google to launch Android One mobile plans to coincide with the launch of the new phones.

Google has also edged out the operators by taking over the rollout of software updates itself, rather than having operators test and release them at will. That's no surprise — historically, networks in the same country would end up rolling out the same update to the same device at vastly different times, or not rolling it out out all, much to the frustration of users.

By putting an end to this situation, Google looks likely to win the approval of both users and operators, and may find itself facing calls from Android users to start doing the same in developed countries too.

While smartphones began outselling features phones in developed economies some time ago, thanks in no small part to the arrival of Android, it's the opposite story in emerging markets where, according to Google, 10 percent of users have access to smartphones (note the language there: smartphone ownership is likely to be far lower).

Of course, that's not likely to be the status quo for very long. According to mobile trade body the GSMA, while smartphones account for two billion mobile connections today, that figure is expected to hit six billion by 2020, thanks largely to growth in developing markets.

Using Android on lower-end devices has traditionally been sub-optimal, so making a concerted effort to deliver a smoother experience is a very obvious, and very sensible, move on Google's part. The two main complaints about Android on low-end devices were performance and fragmentation. By pushing out a stock hardware and software combo, Google is dealing with both in a single stroke.

While smartphones in developed markets are largely Apple or Android-powered Samsung devices, it's a more diverse picture in their emerging equivalents. Historically, Nokia and BlackBerry have done well in such countries , offering low-cost, reliable devices, while there's a number of local Android makers — think Xiaomi, ZTE and Huawei in China, Smartfren and Himax in Indonesia, and the trio Google has teamed up with in India — who currently have sizeable presences in their home markets and beyond.

By fostering greater ties with all these companies while the smartphone market is still in its growth phase, Google may be hoping to avoid the situation it finds itself in with Samsung in developed markets: both hugely reliant on each other, both increasingly uncomfortable with the fact.

Its Android One partnerships mean Google no longer has to put its eggs in one basket, and also make sure that local OEMs stick with Android as Google envisages it, not as handset makers and operators would have it. Google seems to have been increasingly trying to reduce others' influence on the operating system — banning the customisation of Auto, TV, and Wear; wrestling Samsung over its Magazine UI ; and gradually withdrawing its support for the AOSP version of Android.

Android One is just the next step in that progression. Google is using the lure of a turnkey mobile platform to get everyone else in the value chain to give up hope of tweaking Android for their own ends. While most handsets in developed markets use the GMS version of Android, which puts Google's services front and centre, in the developing world AOSP — the original open source Android that can be forked and adapted at will — is far more prevalent. Google has been slowly allowing AOSP to wither and has now stepped in with Android One an alternative — an alternative that puts Android back under its control and its services back in users' eyelines.

Before its acquisition by Microsoft, and for a little while after the deal was proposed, Nokia's strategy in emerging markets was to offer low cost Asha devices with the hope that when the time came for those Asha users to upgrade to more expensive smartphones, brand loyalty would ensure they'd stick with Nokia, and just make the move to Windows Phone.

That strategy was later abandoned, along with the Asha range , and replaced with a plan to offer cheaper and cheaper Windows Phone-powered Lumias, so those users could gradually move to higher-tier devices without having to grapple with a new operating system along the way.

Google is employing a similar wisdom here, making Android consistent, and consistently appealing, across all price points. If an OS performs well at the low end, the path to the high end is smoothed over. It also gives device makers room to grow their revenue on hardware as buyers opt for a more and more expensive device, and Google an unbroken link with that user as they move from handset to handset to handset — all the better to gather their data and sell them services with.

Android One is all about Google tying its ties tighter with everyone involved the mobile industry: with manufacturers, so it's not so dependant on Samsung; operators, to make sure the thorn of upgrades is removed from their, and their customers', sides; with existing users, so they stay with Android whatever price point they buy at; and new users, to make sure they have a decent experience when they upgrade to their first smartphone.

If it works out, we can expect to see more of the same in developed markets. For some time, Google seemed content to let others have a spell behind Android's wheel. Now, it wants to put itself firmly back in the driving seat.

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