For the Kenyan smartphone buyer, Android One and Android Go are terms they will likely be hearing a lot in coming days if they haven’t started being bombarded with them already.
Much as they represent an almost similar objective, Android One and Android Go are a bit different.
First things first, there is Android, the mobile platform that powers just about anything that has a chipset in this world. It’s in cars, in our living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, on our wrists and, soon, for the maize and cow farmer in Kenya’s northern Rift Valley region, it will move from aiding in making sales of farm produce and purchase of implements possible to being a driver of monitoring crop business and animal health from the comfort of their living room.
As a result of this broad aspect of our favourite mobile platform, it’s been unable to properly satisfy the needs of the smartphone user, specifically. You know what they say about jacks of all trade? When it comes to Android, that’s mostly true.
Google, the custodian of the Android platform, allows device makers to tweak and tune Android to their taste and abilities. The end result is a mobile experience that varies depending on who made the device that you are using. If it’s from some Chinese brand then the user interface is probably as colourful as it can possibly get, has questionable user interface choices (like the lack of an app drawer) that are a departure from those not originating from China. China or no China, no matter where the device or its maker hails from, it’s bound to have something in common with almost every other Android device in the world: it will struggle to have its software remain up to date. It is not uncommon to hear some of us who live and swear by the platform recommending a new device purchase as a way of getting to use a newer version of Android.
What if something could be done?
That’s why we lately have Project Treble and Android Go, which is one of the subjects of this piece. However, before both came into being, Google had already tried some tricks with no apparent success.
Google Play Edition devices
In 2013, Google introduced what were known as Google Play Edition devices. These were essentially versions of popular flagship mobile devices from the top Android device makers like LG, Samsung, Sony, Motorola and HTC that ran stock Android akin to Google’s own Nexus devices. In fact, the only difference between these Google Play Edition devices and Google Nexus devices was that the former lacked Nexus branding and retained the brand identities of their respective makers.
For instance there was a Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition alongside the standard Galaxy S4 from Samsung that had Samsung’s modified TouchWiz user interface.
The idea here was to provide the complete stock Android experience, as envisioned by Google but on hardware of the user’s choice and not just limiting users to the Nexus lineup. At that time, it worked and GPE devices were what many of us dreamed of having because, hey, who wouldn’t trade laggy TouchWiz as it was back then for something simple, fast and which had some guarantees regarding availability of Android updates?
Unfortunately, the programme was not much of a success and when it shuttered, the Android world and Google were back where they started: with nothing.
The good thing is that Android One came along in mid-2014 with an announcement at that year’s Google I/O by Sundar Pichai the then Android boss who would later on become Google CEO and a subsequent launch in India that September.
Android One as we knew it
Android One, as we knew it when it was announced in 2014 and when the first batch of devices under the programme started shipping later that year and the following year, was meant to bring stock Android and timely updates to the entry-level and lower-mid-range Android smartphones which often shipped with custom user interfaces from their makers that were hard on the limited memory they packed thus delivering an undesirable user experience that ended up giving Android as a whole, a bad name.
Additionally, these budget devices were barely being updated with their makers being focused on selling the next smartphone rather than supporting existing models whose pricing didn’t warrant all the love and attention that they at times extended to their premium offerings.
With Android One, Google hoped to provide users (Pichai called them “the next billion” on stage at Google I/O during the announcement) a more consistent user experience that was more in line with its overall vision for Android akin to the experience moneyed consumers were getting on their Nexus devices which cost at least three times those Google and its partners were introducing with Android One.
Additionally, Google would handle updates from its end, bypassing the device makers and carriers who are so often accused of delaying software updates for reasons I have already explored here. Device makers would only be responsible for providing the hardware on which Android ran, as it should be, according to some of us.
Basically, the Android One programme was a stock Android experience and guaranteed updates at a fraction of the usual cost. You know, something that even buyers of premium smartphones from big brands would be envious of.
All that sounds novel, right?
The only problem here was that this served Google well and not the device makers. Or so they thought. As a result, most big name device makers that had signed on to the Android One bandwagon like Samsung and others, never got around to releasing Android One devices for reasons best known to themselves.
Of course Google did not help matters by restricting availability of Android One smartphones to certain emerging smartphone markets and, of course, limiting the programme to bottom-of-the-barrel devices. The likes of Samsung were already pursuing their own separate low-cost device strategies in markets like India where it was pushing devices that cost an equivalent of less than Kshs 10,000 running its then unproven Tizen OS.
Things were not as harsh as that sounds, though. Android One was more of a partnership between Google and companies that signed up for the programme more than an imposition. Most of those that embraced Android One from the get-go and benefited to some extent from that software-hardware relationship with Google were companies that mainly played in the budget smartphone segment. Think those smartphone brands from India that you rarely get to hear about locally. Or Chinese smartphone brands in our market like Infinix which, as far as I can recall, was the first to bring an Android One smartphone to the Kenyan market and, by extension, the African market, when it debuted the Infinix Hot 2.
The Infinix Hot 2 was a forgettable smartphone with basic specifications and decent sub-Kshs 10,000 price. Back in the day when Infinix’s “Hot” smartphones would literally become hot when charging or under intensive use. Before they discovered liquid cooling and other fancy-sounding technologies to keep things contained. While it worked just fine, there were still lots of noticeable lag as would be expected of a 1GB RAM smartphone running Android full-on, a huge disappointment that was the complete opposite of the speed and fluidity that Google had promised.
The latter observation I made when I took the Infinix X510 for a spin in late 2015, and many others, probably inspired Google to spin and tweak the Android One programme further. Even further than it had already done months earlier when a reboot of the programme had seen it accommodate devices with even better specifications. Google had also started expanding Android One’s focus to cover more markets that are traditionally not considered “emerging” with Turkey, Spain and Portugal then making up the handful of countries where there was at least an Android One device available on sale.
Two years later, Android One would also head Stateside thanks to Motorola, a former Google company now in the hands of Chinese Android device maker Lenovo. The same would also show up in China through a partnership with Xiaomi in the Mi A1, later.
Despite all these efforts, Android One was still not as big a hit as Google had probably anticipated or wanted and that called for yet another reboot.
Android One as we know it today
Fast forward to a couple of announcements at the 2018 Mobile World Congress and it is clear what Google is up to with regards to Android One today.
Android One has evolved to become Google’s main mobile programme guided by pretty much the same vision as before with just an expanded scope. It’s no longer about providing a desirable standard experience on budget devices in emerging markets but rather bringing Android as envisioned by Google to as many people as possible in all segments of the market.
The beauty of Android One is that Google does allow some leeway for device makers. Some hardware components can be supported as can some software additions like, for instance, HMD Global’s decision to use its own excellent camera app instead of the standard one from Google or Xiaomi’s decision to add an infrared blaster complete with an app to support it.
To ensure its success, Google is letting device makers have the final say when it comes to updates and their availability this time round. So, the updates that hit my Mi A1 have to be okayed by Xiaomi. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but Google’s partners need more say in this whole affair since it is they who eventually have to deal with any issues that may emerge in the wake of botched updates.
So, where does that leave the people it (Android One) catered to? Easy: in the hands of Android Go.
That smartphone prices keep tumbling down doesn’t mean that we have seen the end of 1GB RAM smartphones. They are still there in plenty. And Google still wants users of these and other such-like devices, with less than impressive specifications, to have a decent Android experience and that is why Android Go exists.
Think of Android Go as a lite version of Android. You know, an operating system that has all the excesses of Android stripped to speed up things and make the experience generally good on sub-Kshs 10,000 smartphones. The logic here is that while the features of an entry-level smartphone mostly targeted at first-time smartphone users won’t be as feature-rich as a smartphone that costs 10 times more like the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, each user at least has a good experience. They both get to make near-instantaneous Google searches, read email, watch YouTube videos etc.
Android Go even goes a step further and offers a bunch of Google apps that are stripped down to their basics and tweaked and optimized for best performance on smartphones with the most basic of specifications, just like Android Go is.
Even better, the operating system is built from the ground up to make sure the user does not have to worry about things like their data bundles being depleted quickly or in a manner they can’t explain. Android Go devices have data savings enabled at every turn be it system-wide or in individual apps like the ones that come pre-installed on the device from Google, something that Android One never offered and really what primarily sets apart Go from its predecessor.
One more thing: Android One is not an entirely new operating system. It is the Android version of the day but tweaked and optimized for devices with less hardware capabilities. When it launched, the latest version of Android was (and still is, anyway) Oreo. So, as a result, we don’t talk of Android Go directly when referring to devices running it. Instead we say Android Oreo (Go Edition) because it’s essentially the same operating system version but customized for the kind of devices discussed above. When Android P finally gets a name and arrives, we will say that the Android Go devices of that time run on Android Pxxx (Go Edition).