Earlier this week, Android fans in the US got alerted to a rumor that came as a bit of a surprise. An unconfirmed report from The Information claimed that Google wants to expand its budget-focused Android One phone program into the US sometime in mid-2017. The same report claims Google will help promote this launch by funding a big ad campaign for this first US-based Android One Phone.
Assuming this report is accurate (and to be fair, Google has not confirmed or denied this story yet), it is a little surprising, at least on the surface, that the company might make this move for at least two big reasons. One is that the Android One program originally launched as a way to provide cheaper smartphones for people in developing countries, and not in the bigger markets like the US. The other reason is that there are already a ton of cheap unlocked Android phones that consumers in the US can choose from, so a budget-priced Android One device would face a lot of competition in this country right off the bat.
Yet there are perhaps other reasons below the surface that might support such a move by Google. Before we get into them, here’s a very quick history of the Android One program.
Android on the cheap
In June 2014, Google first announced the Android One program as part of its annual I/O developer conference. As explained at the time by Android’s leader (and now CEO of Google) Sundar Pichai, the company’s idea was to work with OEMs to launch high-quality Android phones at affordable prices for developing markets. While these phones would be made and sold by third-parties, they would use a stock version of Android that would be updated directly, and regularly, by Google itself, bypassing the usual carrier updates that could cause long delays between crucial software updates.
Pichai said at the time the first Android One phones would launch in India later that year, and would be priced at around $100. Indeed, those phones from companies like Karbonn, Micromax, and Spice launched that September at that price point in India. All of them shared the same hardware specs, including a 4.5-inch display, 1GB of RAM, 4GB of storage and ran Android 4.4 KitKat.
At first, the news was good, with predictions that these first Android One phones would sell up to two million units by the end of 2014. The first phones got updated to Android 5.1 Lollipop in early 2015, and more of these kinds of phones started to go on sale in the Philippines, Pakistan and Turkey, with expansions into other parts of Europe. However, it was revealed later that the actual sales numbers from India came in at well below expectations, with about 800,000 units sold in its first year.
Google thought Android One would do way better in its first year
Google has continued to push the Android One program even with these lower sales numbers. In late 2015, it was reported that the company would allow OEMs that were making Android One phones to get access to more parts suppliers. Previously, Google limited the choices for Android One phone components because it wanted these device to be able to run the most recent version of the Android OS. However, manufacturers didn’t care for that idea, as they wanted to get parts that were cheaper so these devices could more easily reach that important $100 price point.
However, the sales reports for these phones continued to be mixed. In May 2016, it was revealed that the Android One program would be integrated into Google’s overall hardware division, which is led by former Motorola President Rick Osterloh. Since then, there’s been little hardware news on the Android One front until this week’s rumor.
The case for Android One in the US
The Information claims that Google will work with a currently unnamed OEM on the first Android One phone in the US, and that it will be priced around $200 to $300. While that’s certainly a much higher price than the first phones that launched in India, it’s possible that Google also wants the US phone to have higher-end hardware that can compete with similar unlocked Android phones from other companies. Chinese companies like OnePlus, Huawei, Xiaomi, LeEco and ZTE have been offering unlocked mid-range Android phones at a low price price point for some time in this country already.
Yet, an Android One phone in that price range would, in theory, have one really big advantage over those other competitors. Google would directly update the Android One device with the latest versions of the OS, as well as provide timely security updates for the next two years, according to the article. The stock Android experience, plus regular updates, is something that can sometimes be a problem for other hardware competitors to provide. Having more Android One phones on the market might also help with the operating system’s fragmentation issue, where only a small fraction of smartphones currently run the latest version, Android Nougat.
Launching Android One in the US would also help with brand awareness
The other big reason Google might want to move Android One into the US is branding. When you pick up an iPhone, you know it runs iOS. Yet, when many people buy a Galaxy phone from Samsung, or phones from Motorola, LG or HTC, the average consumer may not be aware of the Android OS that they use. Google wants people to be more aware that Android is being used by the vast majority of smartphones on the market, and launching an Android One phone in the US would allow it to push that brand to a new segment of smartphone buyers that cannot afford the more expensive, and higher-end, Pixel devices from the company.
Can Google make it work?
Even though there are good enough reasons for Google to launch its Android One program in the US, there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. The biggest one is what kind of hardware will be in this phone. And if Google is indeed thinking about launching such a phone for up to $300, it should also be able to view VR apps via a Daydream View headset. Google might also want to consider putting in features like Google Assistant or unlimited cloud storage for Google Photos on the Android One phone.
If the US-bound Android One device will be sold for $300, it better be ready to compete
One thing Google does have going for itself is experience. It’s been over two years since the launch of Android One in India, so hopefully the company has learned quite a lot about what works and what doesn’t with offering cheaper phones in developing countries. It can surely bring those lessons to a US launch.
We think that Google should really push the fact that Android One phones would get the latest and greatest software updates directly from the company as part of its marketing campaign. Again, most phones have to wait months or years to get these kinds of updates. An Android One phone would, again in theory, not have to wait to get security and other useful software updates.
What do you think?
Google’s Android One program has offered mixed results, at best, so far, but again it could learn some lessons and apply them to a more successful launch in the US. Do you think Google should make this move and would you buy a cheaper Android One phone that would still get the latest software updates on a regular basis? Let us know what you think in the comments!