Google’s Android One is back with the Xiaomi Mi A1, just in case any one was missing it. The last time India got Android One phones with the promise of pure Android and regular updates was in 2014. Google had then partnered with Micromax, Karbonn and Spice Mobiles and set out the basic hardware specifications coupled with the software for those phones. Priced under Rs 7,000, the phones were supposed to offer a clean, stock Android for budget phones users in times when choices were limited.
However, Xiaomi Mi A1 is not just an India affair, though this is one of the most important markets for both the Chinese player and Google. The Mi A1 launch is a global one and the phone will be available across markets, including South East Asia, Middle East, even in North (Mexico) and South America. But looking specifically at India, the comparisons with the original Android One phones are bound to take place. After all, the project was first introduced in this very market.
To be fair though, 2017 is not the same as 2014 for the Indian smartphone market. Users are now shifting to a higher price point of Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 and phones like Redmi Note 4, etc have done exceptionally well. Then there’s 4G spurt thanks to Reliance Jio’s data wars. Plus specifications on budget phones and the overall experience has also improved for customers.
Interestingly Google’s Director for Android Program Jon Gold doesn’t think the new Android One is a reboot, but stresses the company has been going in this direction for a couple of years, just more quietly. “We are looking at Android One more from an experience perspective. Where the device gets regular security updates, OS upgrades, and the experience is close to stock Android,” he explained in an interaction with members of the media. But the Mi A1 has the Xiaomi camera app, not the standard Google camera app, so it is not pure stock Android.
Xiaomi’s Director of Product Management Donovan Sung explained the reason for adding the Mi camera app was the dual rear camera. “We added our own secret sauce for the camera, which takes portrait style photos. However, we’ve gone with Google Photos, which has unlimited high-resolution storage for photos for a more seamless experience,” he said. Xiaomi has also added its Mi Store, Mi Feedback and Mi Remote app in the phones, which is something you would not have seen on earlier Android One phones.
The other thing to note with Android One is that it will now be across price points and specifications, and not just in the budget, affordable segment. “It will be across the range. More in the mid-segment. We will be looking for opportunities across segments,” explained Gold. Google will look at expanding the price, specifications of Android One in the future, though Mi A1 is the start.
The crucial feature of Android One is still the stock Android-like experience where now Google launcher is the highlight. “Security is an important part of this Android One. Also a better experience, along with updates and we will bring them more consistently. We will deliver those things that users need and on a much bigger scale,” said Gold.
In case of the Mi A1, Google has promised an Android Oreo update by the end of 2017. Mi A1 will also be one of the first few phones to get Android P, whenever that is rolled out. Other features for Android One will be the Google Assistant optimisation, which can be activated by long-pressing the home button, Google Photos as the standard gallery app. The Xiaomi Mi A1 also has the Google Play Protect to offer protection against malware.
Still the question remains: What is the definition of Google Android One now, because as Mi A1 shows it is not just stock Android anymore. “We decided that with Android One there are things we absolutely care about. We’re really trying to create a consistent experience across Android. So what we think in consistency is the UI experience, they all get updated regularly. We also recognise that there are really great things that our partners do that should be part of the experience. Like the camera in the Mi phone,” explains Gold.
For Google, Android One has certainly evolved. Yes, the company insists the programme is still about the core parts of the Android OS experience. But it seems other software integrations are also welcome.