Time flies. But when it comes to technology, it pretty much wings along at warp speed. It was barely a few months ago that many people in India felt that Sony had pulled off a pricing coup of sorts when it launched the Xperia Z2 at Rs 49,990 but bundled its SmartBand worth Rs 5,999 along with it. That was the time when a high-end Android device was supposed to costs something in the vicinity of Rs 45,000. There were aberrations like the Nexus 5 and the Lenovo Vibe Z, but even they were definitely high end affairs. There were some more affordable options from relatively lesser known brands but they came with their own set of compromises – older versions of Android, clunky design, compromised specs etc.
The message to those seeking a quality Android experience was clear: you wanna experience Android at its best, you gotta pay. A lot.
And then some companies stepped in and started throwing spanners in the works, offering handsets that had good design and delivered a decent user experience. Without cutting too many corners. Oh, and at surprisingly low prices. The Moto G started it all, offering a 720p display and a quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor for Rs 13,999. The Asus ZenFone 5 followed with a 720p display, good design, very good 64-bit Intel processor and an exceptional camera for as little as Rs 9,999. And then even the Moto G has been made to look a bit expensive by the staggeringly good Xiaomi Mi 3 (blessed by Hugo ‘Nexus’ Barra himself), which offers a full HD display, a quad core Snapdragon processor comparable with the ones in devices like the Nexus 5 and Galaxy S5, a 13.0-megapixel camera, and the latest version of Android to boot.
Yes, there always have been ‘lower priced’ Android devices in the market, but seldom have they been this high-profile. The Mi 3 comes with the assurance of Hugo Barra, the man behind Google’s Nexus range, the ZenFone range comes from one of the best-known hardware brands (Asus) around and also has the support of the world’s leading chipmaker (Intel), and as for the Moto G, well, in spite of being sold and resold, Motorola still enjoys the sort of brand equity that few phone brands do today.
No, this is not a ‘cheapo’ phone surge by smaller players trying to grab a slice of the smartphone pie by fighting solely on price. This is pretty much an attempt to give a great Android experience at a far more affordable price than in the past. And without compromises. These devices can be – are being – flaunted! Hell, Asus won a Red Dot award for the ZenFone. The classic flaws of older ‘affordable’ devices are not present in this group – their designs are good, cameras superb, displays excellent and they even run relatively new versions of Android. Even the good old “after-sales service is better with older brands” argument is not holding up – Barra talked about service requests being addressed in a single day in India, something that very few can offer!
Is this a passing phase? Some might think so. After all, Moto is moving to Lenovo and The Lord alone knows what will happen after that. But on the flip side, neither Xiaomi nor Asus seem to be in this for the short run, if my conversations with them are anything to go by. The coming months are likely to see more powerful devices with sleeker designs, all at prices that are a fraction of what you would get from the routine Android flagship brigade (read “HTC, Samsung, Sony and LG”). The strategy seems to be switching from “high margins, low volumes” to “low margins, high volumes.”
And that is just perfect news for many Android purists. I remember being told by a Google spokesperson way back in 2009 that it should be perfectly possible for a user to get a good Android experience for as little as Rs 10,000-15,000. Well, those days seem to have arrived. In fact, given the surge of decently performing, affordable handsets, one begins to wonder if the Android One initiative is even necessary.
All of which should make the ‘established’ players ponder a bit. LG’s launch of the G3 at Rs 47,990 would have been seen as a ‘decent price’ three months ago. Today, many saw it as being expensive. As one blogger put it bluntly “I can buy a Mi 3 and a DSLR for that much.” No, it is too early to write the obituary of the high-end Android flagship. The new players will have to overcome a number of logistical challenges to really establish themselves in the same mind space as high-end, high-profile handsets, but one thing is clear: companies will have to work that much harder to justify stiff price tags on their devices. High prices without significant innovation might not work as easily as they did once. And tech specs are increasingly losing credibility, courtesy endless repetition and absence of actual performance (we showed a QHD and HD display to close to a dozen people – not one was able to tell the difference) – the consumer is more likely to pay a premium for real innovation and cutting-edge design rather than a spec sheet and perceived brand value.
And that we think is good news. For at the end of the day, the user is getting more bang for fewer bucks.