When Xiaomi had announced plans for a global launch last week, speculation was rife about which product the company would be bringing to the Indian market. Many felt it would be the Mi 6c, a more affordable version of the Mi 6, and some even hoped for the Mi Mix 2. In the end, however, it turned out to be – as predicted correctly by many (not Yours Truly) – the Mi A1, the first device from Xiaomi to be part of Google’s Android One initiative.
Now, normally this kind of alliance would be welcomed by everyone. Hey, this is the company that made Android blending in with the company that pretty much has redefined “value for money” when it comes to handsets. After all, this is a phone match made in budget heaven, wasn’t it?
Well, may be it is, although our editor has been quick to spot holes in it. But the bigger question that is puzzling us is: from where on earth did it pop up from?
If that sounds brutal (it does to us), then consider the evidence. It has been a while since Google spoke of Android One – the last phone that we saw in India under that initiative was the Lava Pixel V1 over two years ago. The search giant in the interim period has spoken of a variety of things including artificial intelligence and reality of the virtual and augmented type, but not much of Android One. Then you have the other side of the party, Xiaomi, which was not part of the initial Android alliance. And with good reason – it was making devices with better specs and lower prices than those that came with Android One. What’s more, the Chinese company actually went out of its way to highlight that its Android overlay, MIUI, was superior to stock Android – in part also to quell the challenge of the Moto devices, which came with stock Android. We even had spokespersons telling us that having its own UI enabled Xiaomi to deliver swifter and more feature rich updates to its devices as compared to stock Android.
And Xiaomi’s strategy worked. The company is numero duo in the Indian smartphone market at the time of writing, and its MIUI interface has had a major role to play in it, delivering a number of useful features to users that other UIs do not. There is even a dedicated MIUI community in India. So excuse me – or should that be Mi – what on earth is Xiaomi doing coming out with a phone running stock Android, the very OS it had derided in its early days in the Indian market?
The answer is not really clear.
Let’s take the Google side of things first. Google has spoken of the revival of Android One with the Mi A1, and well, there is no denying that it is easily the most impressive device that we have seen in the initiative, but on the flip side, it is also the most expensive we have seen. By some distance. And is a far cry from the USD 100 smartphones that Google had initially talked about. Honestly, the Moto C and the Moto E, Nokia 5 and the Moto G5 run stock Android at lower prices. So if the idea was to make stock Android available at an affordable price, then the A1 was an odd choice. If the reason, on the other hand, was to deliver stock Android on devices that were better specced than the rather basic ones that were introduced at the beginning of the initiative, well, then again, you have the likes of the Moto G5s Plus, the Lenovo K8 Note, and the soon to be released Lenovo K8 Plus offering comparable specs at lower prices (Lenovo too moved to stock Android recently, remember?). We are already inundated with queries about how the A1 compares with the slightly more expensive Moto G5s Plus (yes, yes, we are working on it) – that does tell a story.
Honestly, we do not see where the A1 fits into this crowd, as far as stock Android (which is the charm of Android One) is concerned. And as the device is not going to be getting updates directly from Google and is not even part of the Android Oreo beta registration process (both facts pointed out by our editor), the whole “this is an affordable Pixel” argument holds about as much water as a sand grain in the Sahara.
Then there is the matter of Xiaomi. The company has pulled off a meteoric rise in the Indian market, beating the likes of LG, Sony, HTC, and Motorola, relying on a mix of superb communication and great products at very affordable prices, and made its UI one of its cornerstones. I could have understood it turning to Android One or stock Android if MIUI had no or limited traction, but when the evidence is rousingly to the contrary, releasing its first dual camera device with a UI that is different from the one that made it a massive success in the country, seems a decision that is befuddling. Interestingly, it is also perhaps the first time that Xiaomi has released a device that does not totally beat the competition in the spec-price equation – the Lenovo K8 Note, Nokia 6 and the Moto G5s Plus come very close to it and offer stock Android in the bargain, and if one can live without the joys of untrammelled Android, there are Xiaomi’s own Redmi Note 4 and Mi Max 2. No, this is not the sort of runaway winner – at least not on paper – that Xiaomi generally unleashes.
All of which just makes us wonder all the more at this tie up. Yes, some will say that being seen with Google on the same stage will always help any company, but Xiaomi did not actually NEED any further publicity. The company’s comms team has served it admirably, making it a force to reckon with without having to lean on anyone else. Yes, there will be the joys of Google pushing the device in marketing terms, but judging by how much good that has done to the likes of Pixel and previous Android One devices, we would advise putting any celebrations in that regard on hold.
This is not to say that the Mi A1 is a bad device (yes, yes, we are working on the review). No, the chances that the Mi A1 will sell in impressive numbers are very good indeed. But we suspect that that will happen because it will be seen as a Xiaomi device rather than a Google one. For, make no mistake about it, when it comes to smartphone consumers in India, Xiaomi is a bigger name than Google is. Just how much that will help the Android One cause is anyone’s guess. The irony is that if it does indeed help in pushing the stock Android cause, it will actually end up being more helpful to the likes of Lenovo/Motorola than Xiaomi itself, whose main UI is a stock Android competitor.
Which is why we suspect that the big winner in all this might not be Xiaomi or even Android One, but stock Android, which has made itself visible on yet another notable brand in recent times (after Nokia, BlackBerry, Motorola, and Lenovo). Whether it actually leads to a stock Android wave and whether that is a good thing for the consumer (loss of variety never is, in my opinion) is another story altogether…