“The real power of Android,” I remember Vinay Goel, the-then head of products at Google India telling me, way back in 2009, when the OS was still in its infancy, “is to deliver a terrific smartphone experience – browsing, mail, social networks, word processing – in a device that will barely cost 200 USD.”
At that time, it had seemed like a fantastic dream. Android was just about making its presence felt in the international smartphone market. Symbian still ruled the roost, the iPhone was just getting ‘appy,’ BlackBerry was THE enterprise device and Windows Mobile was alive and kicking darned hard. And yet, for many of us, that remained the essential charm of Android – the promise that the OS could provide good smartphones at prices that were not stratospheric.
For those who have forgotten, a good smartphone in those days put one back by close to 500 USD – those were the days of the Nokia E series. Getting something that was as good for less than half that price seemed a tad insane.
Many felt that Android had actually managed to popularize the smartphone when a number of relatively low priced devices like the Galaxy Y, the HTC Wildfire and the Sony Ericsson Xperia W began to hit the markets. As newer brands like Micromax and Karbon joined the fray with low end devices, some costing even less than 100 USD, there was a belief in quite a few sections that Android had made the smartphone and tablet popular.
Well, not quite.
For, ask any person using those low cost (below 200 USD) Android devices launched in the 2010-12 and it is a fair chance that you will hear of slowdowns, crashes, apps that did not run well (high definition gaming and videos were well-nigh impossible) and less than great experiences. Yes, a lot of people purchased Android in this period, but many did so simply because it was the most affordable of all smartphone platforms. In fact, many of them did not even use Android to its fullest extent, confining themselves to using the smartphone just like a phone. Yes, Android did become the most popular smartphone OS in the world in this period, but the gulf between the Android experience on a high-end device like the Galaxy SIII and a low end one, like a Micromax Funbook was akin to that between the old Guns N’ Roses and the new one. Both were the same on paper, but very different in terms of performance.
But that might be changing.
This year in particular seems to be the one where a number of big manufacturers are coming off their flagship perches and making devices that do not cost a bomb and yet turn in a decent performance – a territory in which only the Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire had ventured, with varying success (the Nexus 7 did not exactly clean up the market and the Kindle Fire was sold more as a Amazon service consumption device than a pure tablet). Acer showcased the Iconia B1 tablet in early 2013, with a price tag in India that was well below the 150 USD mark, complete with a dual core processor and a recent version of Android. Asus has launched the MemoPad for $149. And few days back, HP joined the party with the Slate 7 – a $169 tablet running Android.
The key point to note with all these is that while none of them are hardware beasts, they still pack enough to give a much better Android experience than you would have got on a HTC Wildfire or a Samsung Galaxy Y. In fact in terms of most basic tasks like browsing the Web, social networking and mail, they would hold their own against the so-called flagships in the segment. Hey, we even played Shadowgun on the Iconia B1 and did so without any crashes or significant lags. So we did not get ALL the shadows and detailed explosions but the gaming experience was more than acceptable.
And as the big brands discover the potential of the budget Android market, the newer brands have also moved up their act a notch. Two years ago, we would not have recommended a Micromax product over one from Samsung. Today, we would go out on a limb and call Micromax’s Canvas HD one of the best value for money tech products around, packing a 5.0-inch display, quad core processor, 1 GB of RAM, and every connectivity option short of HDMI – all yours for $250. And its predecessor, the Canvas 2 is still selling, with a 5.0 inch display and a dual core processor for around 200 USD.
What’s interesting is that these products now deliver a much better Android experience than the so-called budget products of the past, which were plagued by low-resolution screens, slow processors and very little in the name of RAM. Karbon and Lava are two other players that are coming up with very decent offerings in this segment. And unlike in the past, their products look very good as well. Build quality is solid and there are even flashes of style – we have seen people wondering whether to go for the Samsung Galaxy Grand or a Micromax Canvas HD.
The big brands are getting budget-friendly, the smaller ones are improving their act, the specs are getting better, the prices are getting lower and the user experience of an Android device at less than USD 200 now is not as far away from one that costs three times as much. The bar of the “general Android experience” as defined by that experienced by a person using a relatively low-end device has been raised. Significantly. And could get even better.
Which is why I think that almost a year after becoming the world’s most popular smartphone OS, Android is finally REALLY going mainstream.