Hidden gems are a great tool for storytelling. Think about when you are talking to your friends and food gets brought up. You bring up that quaint little restaurant that nobody knows about, and wax poetic about an amazing burger that you had there. You feel like the trendy friend, the one that knew about the next big thing before it was the next big thing. While this applies for food, in the world of consumer technology being a hidden gem often relegates an idea or a product into the land of what could have been. This has been the fate of projects such as WebOS and MeeGo, and I fear that this could be the fate of the Android One project. Here’s what can be done to avoid such a fate.
Simplicity is a Virtue
We need to go back to 2014 for the origins of the Android One program. At the time, the initiative was designed as a way to bring the stock Google experience that was found on Nexus phones and eventually Pixel devices to the midrange and lower end tiers of the smartphone food chain. The reasoning was quite sound at the time and is even more important now. While top end flagship phones will always get attention and updates, phones that operate at the lower price tier that the majority of people actually buy are often neglected. Android One promised 3 years of security updates, and 2 years of major software updates directly from Google.
This solution actually addressed a very real problem with lower end devices. Walk into any cell phone store and there are bound to be promotional devices that are free or offer a very low monthly payment. These phones come from all sorts of different companies such as Samsung, LG, Motorola, and Coolpad. While these phones are often sold in bunches, there has been very little priority made to updating them. Take for example Samsung’s entry level Galaxy A10e that is sold through T-Mobile. The phone has been available for a year at this point and has received 4 security updates and is still on Android 9 despite Android 10 being released for Samsung devices in December of 2019. And there really seems not to be a roadmap for this update to land on Samsung’s entry level model despite it selling in great numbers. Google identified this problem back in 2014 and decided that something needed to be done about this.
The core belief behind Android One was really to make low end phones more usable and not be a death sentence of lag and no support that it was. Google addressed this in a couple of ways. First, it declared that there would be no bloatware from the hardware manufacturer and the experience would be a pure Google experience. As a result of this there would not be a bunch of carrier and OEM apps that were taking up storage and resources on a phone with limited capability in terms of hardware. The next big move that Google made with this program is one of uniformity, by making sure that it is the same experience without any additional manufacturer tinkering of the software user interface. This allowed Google to be able to optimize the software on all devices and deliver updates in a timely manner since it was all in essence running the same software.
The foundation for Android One was simplicity and efficiency, a foundation that mirrored the software that the phones were running. Yet here we are, in 2020, six years after the introduction of this program and there hasn’t been much traction here in the West and barely anyone knows what Android One is. So why is this? In my estimation, there are two reasons for this: OEM name recognition and a lack of carrier partnerships.
Who Made That Phone?
As it stands today, only one noteworthy phone maker has consistently released Android One devices, and that company is Nokia. Nokia has experienced its own renaissance under the Android One umbrella, committing to have all of its phones run on the software platform. The brand still has familiarity and loyalty in Europe, and as such has resulted in favorable market share numbers in the region to become a top 5 player in the EU. But that is where the name recognition stops for Android One hardware partners.
In fact, going back to 2018 Nokia has accounted for nearly 60% of Android One device releases. LG has released one device that was exclusive to the Canadian market in the LG G7 One. Motorola has released three Android One devices in that time period and does not seem to be on track to release any more in the future. The rest of the portfolio consists of Xiaomi, Sharp, and BQ. Not exactly household names. Image and reputation sells products often in western markets, as evidenced by Nokia’s resurgence in Europe, and Android One does not have it.
It is increasingly difficult to sell a platform like Android One when the companies making the phone are not recognized by consumers. A more prominent push by LG and Motorola to make Android One phones and an effort by a company like Samsung or even HTC would lend more credibility to the initiative on a larger scale. As it stands now, Android One could justifiably be looked at as Nokia’s platform more than anything. In the example earlier, I discussed Samsung’s Galaxy A10e as a device in need of more software support. A device like this would be ideal for Android One, as would a device such as the Motorola Moto G Stylus or LG Stylo 5. These are lower end devices that sell very well in carrier stores, with companies that have long reputations of carrier partnerships.
Okay, But Where Can I Buy It?
Here in the US, carrier partnerships are the key to be able to sell a bulk of phones. While many tech blogs emphasize the importance of buying unlocked from a perspective of avoiding unwanted carrier apps, the reality is that most people buy a phone by going through their carrier. This is mostly done because of subsidized pricing and zero interest financing through monthly payments. Nokia has started to see this, and has positioned some of their Android One devices at Verizon Prepaid and Cricket Wireless channels. But this is not enough.
Having a presence from Nokia and others in major carrier stores both prepaid and postpaid will go a long way in ensuring the long term success of the platform. There is a certain out of sight out mind aspect to selling a phone with a lower price tag. The needs of that customer differ highly from the needs of a power user. Generally speaking, those needs are limited to basic communication through messaging and social media apps with some light photography. This use case is the exact definition of the purpose of Android One. The experience would be one of ideal simplicity and ease of use that would resonate with these customers.
By having no real presence outside of the very small unlocked market, Android One as a platform for the masses is not reaching the masses. If the platform is to make any headway in the US, then it must be at the major postpaid carriers (T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon) and prepaid carriers (Metro PCS, Cricket, Boost Mobile) to gain visibility. Being able to highlight security updates and a simple to use phone without a million apps is instantly attractive to a no frills crowd. Where the high end customer loves features and options (this is why Pixel phones sometimes struggle in comparisons), the low end customer would prefer that they not be there.
The Three Pronged Approach
Back in 2013, Google announced a program called Google Play Edition. What this program entailed is that high end phones from companies such as HTC and Samsung would be shipped with stock Android as opposed to the skins that those companies would ship on their phones. These were parallel releases to the standard carrier versions, and while they were popular among tech enthusiasts never truly made a mark on the mainstream. Android One however, can be positioned as different with a three pronged approach that will be able to make a relevant impact in the smartphone market at all levels.
Starting with the lowest possible tier of devices priced under $200, Google has introduced Android Go. Android Go takes the same principles of Android One with a small twist. Since this platform is designed for the absolute lowest hardware, they feature lightweight versions of Google’s core apps such as Search, Maps, and Photos. These apps are appealing for these devices since they offer the core functionality of the primary app but take away the extra features that take up extra storage and memory. These apps are the definition of the core smartphone functionality with guaranteed software updates. If marketed correctly, Android Go could become the default phone for senior citizens and young children. A low cost of entry that is simple and secure to execute the basic communication needs.
The step up from this would be satisfied by the current crop of Android One devices. Mid range devices that can offer the reliability of the stock Android experience, while not overflowed with unnecessary extra features, and get timely updates to give the end user the feeling that their device actually matters. An inclusion of more manufacturers making these devices that are actually in carrier stores would go a long way. As an example, a phone like the LG Stylo 5 that is offered at most all carrier stores but is held back a bit by the lack of software updates would benefit greatly from the advantages of Android One. This would give a level of care to a series of smartphones in the Stylo line that has a very positive user satisfaction level. Android One has the potential to take some mid range phones and turn them into even more compelling alternatives to more expensive flagships.
The last segment that Android One is in a position to influence smartphones is at the high end. Nokia has largely struggled with this when they released their high end Nokia 9 Pureview. A big reason for this is that HMD has been ill equipped to market flagships as they have had more experience in the mid range and the nuances of making a flagship seems a bit lost on them. The idea of a flagship Android One device is very much a reincarnation of the Google Play Edition devices from years ago. Holistically, flagship Android One devices from multiple manufacturers creates a system that can legitimately compete with Samsung and Apple on the high end.
It can be said that the aesthetic of Android One is very much in line with Google’s Pixel vision in terms of look and feel. Using a Nokia Android One phone feels very much like the software experience on a Pixel phone. A flagship tier of Android One devices can then turn the Pixel experience from a single device lineup to an entire device portfolio. The idea of having a Pixel like experience from not only Google but manufacturers like Motorola, LG, Sony, and even a retooled HTC could make an impact on creating an overall experience to make Android One truly unique as a third competitor at all levels of the industry.
The Elusive Third Option
Ever since the decline of options from Windows Phone and BlackBerry in recent years, there has been a void of a third competitive platform to compete with Android and iOS. And the thought process on this has always been that there needs to be a third operating system. What if the reality was a little more nuanced than that?
The way that trends have gone the past few years, is that Apple and Samsung have dominated the landscape of smartphones in the West. So much so that the companies have made moves to cater to their fan bases that creates a bit more exclusivity with their platforms. Apple has harvested an ecosystem that expands into all of their product lines. Samsung has recently aligned itself with Microsoft and their cooperative integration will only increase as the months pass. Where does this leave the rest of the players in the Android space? In a way, they have become like scattered tribes in comparison to two full fledged empires.
Companies like LG and Sony have had so many consecutive quarters of lost revenue and profit in the mobile space. It has come to a point where many smartphone enthusiasts are surprised that these companies still make phones, where their software efforts are maligned and the hardware is considered not good enough to compete with Apple and Samsung. If all of these companies created an alliance to use Android One as a platform then there could be enough ammunition to take on Samsung at all segments of the market with a great software model behind it.
Where companies like LG have struggled is the perception that their software is inferior can be solved by Android One, because as much as the Pixel line is maligned for hardware it is praised for software. Where a company like Motorola or LG can benefit from this is using the Android One platform but including some of the hallmark features that makes those companies experiences unique. In the case of LG, including their HiFi DAC headphone jack could still be included. Motorola continuing to implement their Moto Actions can still be leveraged as well.
By these companies using the Android One foundation for all of their phones, the excuse of updates and bloat goes out of the window at all price points. A collaboration between Google, Motorola, LG, and Sony specifically helps Android One to be in multiple channels of sale and at all price points. This is how Google can use Android One to create an advantage over Samsung and Apple. A huge catalog of devices that can then implement accessories that make Android One more useful.
With the potential of more market share to be gained, the efforts by some of these companies in place already to create an ecosystem could take full circle. LG and Sony are both legitimate contenders in the audio space with Bluetooth headphones. By having deeper integration and vested interests in a unified platform, these accessories can be marketed as better on Android One as opposed to iOS and Samsung. Not to mention, this gives the opportunity for Google to leverage Chrome OS as the perfect desktop companion for their operating system much as Apple has done with MacOS and Samsung is doing with Windows 10.
Android One is a possibility for a unification alliance of companies that can’t seem to get some traction to be able to get traction against Samsung and Apple. The excuse of update frequency will no longer be a valid one and really cause the consumer and review market to take notice of what is being offered. Something that can offer a meaningful efficient software alternative to Apple and a hardware pricing range that will compete with Samsung.
Increasingly, we are in a tech world of ecosystems. At this point in time, Google has had a bit of a scattered situation with the way that it has instituted its own ecosystem. The company is new to the world of hardware manufacturing, and could benefit from the seasoned touches of the companies mentioned earlier. A mutually beneficial partnership to help Google build their entire ecosystem while also offering seasoned manufacturers a way to bring back legitimacy while focusing on their strengths. As it stands today, Android One is the home of Nokia phones and excellent mid range devices. It can be so much more, and as a fan of gadgets and competition I hope that one day it will live up to that potential.