About three years ago, Sundar Pichai, then head of Android at Google, came to India to unveil a smartphone reference design for the “next billion”. The Android One project, despite all the good intentions and the marketing dollars that Google put in, was a bit of a non-starter across the world. The $100 phones had the best possible specs for that price point at that time. But it failed to hit the sweet spot with experience.
Now, Pichai is Google CEO and the company has a new plan to connect the “next billion”, most probably a different billion since so much time has passed.
Android Go, in contrast to Android One, will be more of a software solution than a hardware one. Google’s latest attempt is a version of Android for lower spec phones, those with as little as 512MB memory. It will have apps custom-made for this lite version of Android, and even a version of Play Store that will highlight the apps that will work well on this version. From Android O onwards, all smartphones with under 1GB of RAM will automatically get this version as default.
With this new effort, Google is clearly attempting to make the sub-$50 smartphones more relevant to those who end up buying it in the end. However, the lack of good, dependable devices that offer a reasonable user experience have pushed most of the volume in the Indian market at least to upwards of $100. The need to future-proof with a 4G VoLTE device has also forced a lot of new buyers to move up to this price segment.
It remains to be seen if a smartphone with lower specifications, and a more affordable price point, is able to woo the masses, at least those moving up from a feature phone. One trend that has been clear in this segment is the fact most of these users are enticed by the opportunity to stream video on their devices and hence prefer to get phones with larger screens, even if they are not that high on specs.
Incidentally, Google announced YouTube Go — yes, we missed the hint — out of India last year. India is one of the largest markets for YouTube in the world, and certainly the one that promises the most growth.
While we haven’t heard much about YouTube Go, an app like this that works well even on very basic smartphones could gradually negate the need for a more powerful, costly, device for millions of people who can’t really afford it. This customer segment could then stop pushing themselves to upper price segments, or putting off the purchase all together.
So, clearly Google has a big opportunity, provided it is able to level the experience with Android across all types of devices, be they $50 smartphones or $500 flagships. It is the experience that Android Go has to sell, not the OS, not the device.