The response to ‘Android One’ – Google’s ambitious project for reaching out to users in emerging markets (the so-called ‘next five billion’) – has been mixed at best. Launched in September 2014, the project notched a disappointing sales figure of of ~3 million over the first twelve months, across 19 countries. In a specifically targeted country like India, the performance of Android One was particularly ho-hum – with the low-end, budget smartphones under the project making up less than 4% of the overall $50-$100 device market. At this month’s Google I/O annual conference, the company announced an interesting new project called ‘Android Go’ – to capture the low-end segment of the smartphone market. In what follows, we will look through some important points regarding Android Go:
Not a new OS
As pointed out by Google VP (product management) Sameer Samat, Android Go is NOT a separate new mobile operating system. It is, in essence, a ‘light’ version (an internal project) of the upcoming platform – targeted towards all handsets that have less than 1GB of RAM. In other words, all entry-level Android handsets (which are relatively cheap) with low RAM will have the Android Go platform installed in them by default. On basic Android phones, the ‘light’ Android Go version will give a serious boost to performance levels. An inexpensive phone will no longer mean a laggy phone!
Size of the market
At Google I/O 2017, it was formally announced that the total number of Android users worldwide had gone past the 2 billion mark. Emerging markets are contributing to Android’s growth in a big way. India, in fact, currently has more Android-users than in the United States – while usage figures are similarly robust in China and several other nations from the Asia-Pacific. According to a recent Counterpoint Market Monitor report, more than 25% of all smartphones shipped in 2017 Q1 had sub-1GB RAM. Although the corresponding figure in 2016 was higher (nearly double) – this clearly shows that there is a large enough market of low-spec Android phones that Google can effectively target with Android Go.
Note: In India, Android Go should also boost the number of people moving on from feature phones to entry-level smartphones.
3. Data Saver on Android Go
On most low-level Android handsets, mobile data consumption is a common point of concern. The Android Go platform looks to address this issue with the built-in Data Saver feature – accessible from ‘Quick Settings’. In the Chrome browser of the devices, this Data Saver feature is activated by default. Of course, an Android-user might disable it – in case (s)he wants to do so (for instance, someone trying out Android Go on a Google Pixel phone). There is also a graphical representation of the total amount of mobile data saved.
4. Compatible apps highlighted in Play Store
The Android Go devices will not have a separate version of the Play Store. Users will be able to access all the apps listed in the Play Store – with the ones compatible with low-end phones highlighted under the ‘optimized for your device’ category (for example, Skype Lite and Facebook Lite). The onus lies on third-party Android app developers to come up with ‘lightweight’ versions of their applications – which have lesser memory and bandwidth requirements, smaller APK, and use up less mobile data. The ‘Building For Billions’ initiative of Google aims at providing support to developers trying to come out with customized, ‘light’ versions of their apps. Typically, apps optimized for Android go are less than 10MB in size, and do not put any extra pressure on the device processor and/or battery. They should also retain their functionality offline (i.e., have ‘useful offline state’).
Note: Devices running on the Android Go platform will also have a streamlined Android kernel.
Android One vs Android Go
While both the Google projects are aimed towards connecting with the lower-end of the Android market spectrum, Android Go should not be taken as a simple extension of the Android One campaign. The latter is more hardware-oriented – with OEMs partnering with the project to launch new, entry-level models for providing users a plain-vanilla Android experience. In India, Spice, Micromax and Karbonn were among the manufacturers who teamed up with Android One. However, the project is no-longer targeted to the sub-$100 phone category (where its success has been modest). Google has collaborations with Qyocera and Sharp (in Japan) and General Mobile (Turkey) – and these companies have devices in the $400-$500 and $200-$250 price brackets respectively.
Android Go, on the other hand, is a purely software-driven project. There are no hardware specifications involved – and the platform focuses solely on improving user-experience levels by customizing the latest version of Android and facilitating app-usage from the Android app marketplace (via highlighting in Play Store). Android One no longer eyes only the entry-level segment of the Android market – while Android Go is exclusively focused on it.
Note: Google’s attempts to penetrate the low-end smartphone market started with Project Svelte for Android KitKat.
With Android Go, Google has also tweaked around the features of some of the native Android applications. We have already talked about the ‘data saver’ feature being turned on in the Chrome browser. On handsets running on the lightweight version of Android O, ‘YouTube Go’ will be present (instead of the general ‘YouTube’ app). People will have the option of previewing frames to decide whether to watch a video or not, and check out the amount of mobile data that will be used up by viewing a clip (not applicable if a user is on wifi). The option of downloading YouTube videos for watching later in offline mode – currently a paid feature in YouTube Red – has also been made available for free on the Android Go version. The quality of video-streaming can also be chosen by the user. The peer-to-peer (P2P) video sharing feature is yet another convenient add-on in YouTube Go. In general, several of the native Android apps will have slightly changed configurations – while there will be a few (like YouTube Go) with entirely new versions.
There are no restrictions whatsoever on who can or cannot use the Android Go software. Right from the users of a low-end phone like Micromax Canvas A1, to advanced Nexus or Google Pixel users – everyone can check out ‘Go’ on their handsets. Also, all smartphone-users on the Android platform will have access to the same Play Store – and can download any of the apps uploaded there (i.e., the choices for an Android Go user are not limited to the apps that are highlighted as optimized for his/her device). The new platform might be targeted towards entry-level phones, but it is usable by everyone.
Reference point for Android Go hardware
There are no set-out hardware plans for Android Go (Google clearly is looking forward to the innovations that the different OEMs can bring to the table). The Moto C handset, which was launched in India earlier this month, does offer a fair idea on what the first set of devices running on Android Go will be like. The phone has a modest 5” display screen (lo-res) and a 5MP camera (along with a 2MP selfie camera). For the moment though, Google is concentrating only on the software aspect in the Android Go program. In the absence of any reference hardware, there are no expected price points of Android Go phones either. According to Sameer Samat, OEMs will be allowed to create basic, low-spec handsets that deliver optimal Android experience – at as low a price point as practically feasible.
India is likely to be one of the principal markets for the Android Go project – and the market for $50-$100 phones is shrinking here (as mentioned earlier). What’s more – several entry-level phones, like the Xiaomi Redmi 4 (2GB) and the new Gionee A1 (slightly more pricey, but with 4GB RAM) offer higher RAM than the 1GB cut-off point for Android Go. It remains to be seen how much of a market Android Go can carve out for itself…with new, sub-1GB RAM (512MB, maybe?) handsets. Current users of feature phones who are planning to upgrade to smartphones will be an important segment of the Android Go market.
Note: The emphasis on mobile data usage comes from the fact that most users in developing countries are on prepaid plans.
10. Revamped GBoard
Google Keyboard was renamed GBoard in December 2016 – and on Android Go, it is going to be more user-friendly than ever before. Translations will be smoother, thanks to the presence of Google Translate inside the keyboard (at Google I/O 2017, a English-to-Hindi translation was showcased). All that the users will have to do is speak out words phonetically – and GBoard will immediately translate the spoken words into the script of the pre-specified language. For people who have to regularly work with more than one language, this is a really handy feature.
11. Fueling the fragmentation problem?
Fragmentation is one of the biggest problems of the Android platform. At the start of May 2017, the adoption rate of Android 7.0 stood at a measly 6.6% – with Marshmallow, Lollipop, and KitKat (in that order) remaining the three most popular versions. The arrival of the Android Go platform, however, is not likely to make this fragmentation worse. For starters, it will have the same API number as the main ‘Android O’ version. Also, the differences in the build configurations between Android O and Android Go are minimal. Manufacturers of entry-level Android phones are likely to find it easier to concentrate on a single, customized Android version (‘Go’) than having to consider all the different versions of the platform.
12. Android Go in 2018
While there has not been any official word about it, Google is looking at a 2018 launch of Android Go, on low-end, budget smartphones. The target markets are also yet to be announced – although it can safely be assumed that India will be included in the program. The Android Go update will be exclusively available on new devices – and will not arrive on currently active entry-level phones. There are several months to go before the arrival of ‘Go’ – and it will be interesting to note all the announcements Google makes during this period.
The second developer preview of Android O was released on 17 May – and the full release is expected in the third quarter of this year (as is customary for new Android versions). Many software and mobile app developers opine that Android Go will actually provide a thrust to the adoption figures of Android O – simply because it will motivate OEMs to use the ‘lightweight’ version of the latest android version, instead of persisting with an older version on a brand-new entry-level phone. Android Go is very well-researched project – and it might well help Google capture a large percentage of new smartphone-users across the globe.