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Friday, December 03, 2021

Google wants to build an ‘Android’ for India: Can it finally win?

Google wants to build 'Android for India' and fix the 'affordability gap' in the market. The JioPhone Next is one attempt to solve this. But can it finally succeed?

Written by Shruti Dhapola | New Delhi |
Updated: November 23, 2021 2:05:20 pm
Android, Android for India, JioPhone Next, Google JioPhone Next, Google Jio phoneThe logo of Google is seen on a building. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

Android might be the dominant OS in the Indian smartphone market, but Google thinks there is more to be done. Last week, it revealed that it has a dedicated team focusing on Android in India based in Bengaluru and London. The key problems it wants to solve: create Android ‘experiences’ for India users and bridge the ‘affordability gap’ between smartphone and feature phone users. The JioPhone Next is the first product of this new team.

While Google hasn’t detailed how it plans to achieve these goals, this is clearly not the search giant’s first attempt at build Android devices for India.

In 2014, when Sundar Pichai was a Senior VP at Google and in charge of Chrome and Android, Google had launched its first set of ‘Android One’ phones in partnership with Micromax, Karbonn and Spice Mobile. All three phones were under Rs 6,500 and supposed to offer a ‘clean’ stock Android experience for budget phone users, something rarely seen at the price point at the time.

But, Android One did not quite take off. One major problem: All phones had the same set of specifications and not much to differentiate then from the rest of the market. Plus, data was considerably more expensive back then, and smartphone usage was just starting to take off. That last bit though has changed drastically since 2016 and the entry of Jio.

Google tried again with Xiaomi’s Mi A series in 2017 with much better specifications and a price point of Rs 14,999. While the phone got mostly positive reviews, Android One itself never quite dominated the Indian smartphone market.

However, with the JioPhone Next, it seems Google is going beyond the conventional ‘slap on stock Android and hope it sells approach’ that it has tried in the past. This is also why the JioPhone Next comes with features that Google thinks first-time smartphone users might value in India — voice queries and local languages.

The phone, running the optimised PragatiOS version of Android, has the ability to translate all text, across all apps, into the user’s local language. It can also read out the text in the user’s preferred language. The camera software too has been tweaked to ensure better photos, often a common pain point on budget phones. Of course, how all of this translates into the actual user experience is what will really determine the JioPhone Next’s success.

However, Google seems to be looking at the phone as an opportunity to offer a more tailored Android experience going beyond specifications. And while Google is right about creating tailored experiences, ignoring specifications can be a risky proposition in India.

Specifications do matter for most users in the country, especially those picking up their first device, more so if at a budget price. The perception that good specifications are equal to a good user experience, that a device with a better processor will work smoothly for longer, is deeply entrenched in the minds of Indian consumers.

This is also why brands like Redmi, Realme have done so well here, offering specifications one would typically see in the Rs 20,000-Rs 25,000 at a price of Rs 15,000 or lower. The idea that software alone can make for a smooth experience is yet to see success here.

There’s also no denying that this latest attempt at an Android experience for India has a much better chance of success. Data is much, much cheaper in the country now and the pandemic has made the demand for phones explode. And, yes, more Indians are using voice to talk to their phones. Now whether all of these factors ensure that the latest attempt at ‘Android for India’ fares better than what it has done in the past is what will be interesting to watch.

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