Just when you thought that there were more than enough versions of Android for everyone to go around, Google added one more on the opening day of Google I/O. No, we are not talking about Android O, but its rhyming cousin. Android Go. As per the press release carrying its announcement:
“This is a new configuration of Android — an initiative for entry-level Android devices. The goal of Android Go is to get computing into the hands of more people by creating a great smartphone experience on all Android devices with 1GB or less of memory.”
The OS will come with special versions of Google apps that consume lesser resources (“less memory, storage space and mobile data” to refer to the press release again), and there will also be a version of the Play Store highlighting apps specially designed for the “next billion users.”
One could argue as to why Google insists on assuming that this next billion user group is going to be attracted only to low-end devices, but then this is a line that was used when Android One was introduced a few years ago. The Android One range of devices was a tad more expensive on paper, so evidently in the interim period, the next billion has got even poorer. Or maybe it is a new next billion.
But that is not for us to debate. It is Google’s product and its own estimation of its target audience.
No, what concerns me is the search behemoth’s decision to come out with a different version of Android aimed at this slightly less financially-able group. We have seen Microsoft wander down that path with stilted and affordable versions of Windows, with no discernible sign of success, so I must confess to scratching my head a little about Google’s decision to follow that route. I am even wondering whether it needs to follow that path at all.
For, a look at Amazon and Flipkart, the two prominent e-retailers in India (which we suspect is going to serve up a decent dollop of the Next Billion) reveals that there already are a number of devices with relatively low prices (around USD 100) that are running full versions of Android. I have used my share of them, and my experience has generally been that as long as you do not push them into gaming or heavy multi-tasking, they do an adequate job. They are not benchmark busters but hey, at that price, and for that audience, they are not supposed to be so either.
Devices like the Moto E and the Redmi 1S and Redmi 4A have shown that you can deliver a very decent user experience at a surprisingly low price. And without having to run a special version of Android. Micromax’s Vdeo range even fought on video calls at less than USD 100. And there are other manufacturers out there as well including the likes of Xolo, Swipe, and Intex that are offering smartphones at remarkably low prices that can do most basic tasks decently. And if trends are anything to go by, smartphones will even get more affordable by the time Android Go comes around (which is in 2018 – a long time away). And this is not even counting the refurbished or second-hand market, where it is easy enough to get an older device for about half its price (you can get a refurbished Moto G3 at around USD 100, for instance).
My point here is simple: there ARE options out there already for people who want a smartphone for very basic functions (calling, texting, mail, some video and perhaps the odd WhatsApp session). And none of them need a special version of Android to run smoothly while sticking to the basics. So why is Google trying to reinvent the Android wheel for a less expensive car?
The answer theoretically is simple: Android Go will run more smoothly on low resource phones, giving users a much better experience. So users will be able to experience Google services and apps more smoothly on a low price phone than they are at the moment.
Which begs the question: just how much does user experience matter at that price point? For take my word for it, unless there is a dramatic different in speed between Android and Android Go, the user is unlikely to bite the Go bullet. And if phones running Android Go are lower priced, you can rest assured that retailers will try and push slightly more expensive options at buyers, stressing the presence of “full Android” – yes, most users might not get the real meaning of the term, but hey, anything that is “full” sounds good. It happened with Chromebooks in India, where retailers almost forced users to buy low priced Windows notebooks rather than cheaper Chromebooks which ironically ran much faster, but were perceived as being limited. And this is a massive perception challenge that Android Go might face – to be seen as the weaker of two Android siblings. If the price differential between a budget Android O device and an Android Go one is not significant, the latter may find the going tough. I will again evoke the Chromebook example – people were ready to go for a Rs 13,999 Windows notebook that would be occasionally sluggish rather than opt for a Rs 9,999 Chromebook, which would be much more speedy. And I am not even getting into the level of motivation developers would have for making their apps Go-friendly if the audience being targeted is a “basic” user one, which is unlikely to go crazy downloading apps.
Yes, we have no doubt that Google will supplement the Android Go initiative with plenty of marketing dollars, but as Android One proved, that does not guarantee success. Android Go stumbled mainly because it attempted to address a need that did not actually exist – people were already getting better-specced phones at lower prices (the Moto/Xiaomi effect had just started), and contrary to what the fanboys would have people believe, timely Android updates are never a buying decision factor in the affordable smartphone segment. Android Go could well find itself in the same territory next year – trying to address a problem that does not really exist. It is going to need support from some big brands and some (oh the irony) high-profile devices to succeed where Android One stumbled.