When Sundar Pichai, he who oversees Android, Chrome and Google Apps, stepped on to stage earlier today to launch the first phones as part of Google’s Android One initiative, the expectations in the room were high enough to have prompted Dickens’ ghost to write a sequel to his classic work. When he did announce the devices, the hall was filled with applause. But by the time the dust had settled a few hours later and we had finished tinkering with the first devices (you can check our thoughts on the Spice Dream Uno here), one was just wondering if, for all its noble intentions, Google might just have left it a bit late with Android One?

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For, make no mistake about it, there is a lot to like about the Android One initiative. The whole idea of being able to provide devices that deliver a certain level of Android experience at relatively low prices and with assured updates to future versions is right out of Geek Utopialand. Indeed, one of our biggest gripes about Android has been the fact that unless you happened to own a Nexus device, the chances of your getting an update to the next version of the OS were about as good as being able to dig a hole in the Great Wall of China with a toothpick. And then there was the little matter of needing some hefty hardware to get the most out of Android – why DID Android flagships have to cost so much (even the Nexus phones are not exactly inexpensive).

Android One addresses both these issues to quite an extent. Android One devices will be able to get software updates in a timely manner, and well, they will deliver a good Android experience at a price that will be just a tad above a hundred US Dollars (and is expected to dip below it at some stage in the coming days).

So we can see the geeks going “whoopee” and painting the digital town red at the announcement, after (of course) having pillaged their share of selfies with the charmingly understated Pichai. The bigger question, however, is whether it will evoke a similar response (the selfie bit excluded) from the ‘normal’ Android user.

A year ago, we would have said: absolutely. The problem is that a year is a long time in technology.

At this time, in 2013, getting an Android device that performed decently and cost around a hundred US Dollars was stuff of science fiction. Yes, there were Android phones available at around or even below that price, but they came with significant trade offs: poor design and less than optimal hardware (read ‘slow processors, inadequate RAM, poor displays and so on). These were fodder for those wanting something better than a feature phone but not possessing the bucks for better devices. “You want to play, you have to pay” was the maxim.

Right, that was a year ago. Today, the scene has undergone a rather radical alteration. You CAN get a very powerful device for lesser than the price of the Android One devices – check out our review of the Xiaomi Redmi 1S if you find that hard to digest (the device has a better processor, camera and display than any of the devices we saw today). And that is not an aberration. You also have the likes of the Moto E, the Asus ZenFone 4, the Micromax Unite 2 and the Lava Iris X1, and a few others besides – even Windows Phone devices are coming for a tad over the hundred Dollar mark.

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The Android One devices no longer have a signficant design, hardware or software edge over their competition. What they do have is the ability to receive software updates before any of their competitors can. Which begs the question: do software updates count at this price segment? Our experience reveals that while most consumers do value getting the latest software on their devices at the time of purchase, not too many are interested in subsequent updates. And even if we are wrong, there is another factor to consider: would a person pick an Android One device over something like a Xiaomi Redmi 1S or a ZenFone 4 just because the former had more recent software? We are not too sure. The very fact that Asus and Xiaomi were able to sell thousands of devices in spite of running older versions of Android seems to indicate that it takes more than the latest software to sway the consumer. As one executive told us, “If the latest software was all that counted, the Nexus would have been the highest selling Android device, not the Galaxy or Galaxy Note!” There is also the little matter of the fact that the very manufacturers who came out with Android One devices today will in the coming days come out with devices that compete against them – and there is no guarantee that they will push the Android One portfolio more than their own handsets.

All of which places the Android One devices in the danger of ending up in a similar slot to that of the Nexus: popular among the geeks (those on a tight budget specially) but not quite a rage amongst the mainstream users, who might gravitate towards other devices that look better or have better spec sheets (and marketing campaigns). Their best chance of success lies in Google’s updating Android radically and rapidly, as the software updates are the only real ace they have up their mobile sleeves.

Yes, we do welcome Android One heartily and wish it the very best. But we also so do have the temptation to scream into its digital ears: “Could you not have come earlier?” In September 2013, it would have been an out and out winner. In September 2014, it faces the mother of all phoney wars (pun intended) in one of the most competitive segments of the mobile phone market.

As we never tire of saying, a year is a long time in tech.
Welcome, Android One.
And oh yes, En Garde!


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Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.