Ahah. It's all starting to make sense.
Google, if you haven't heard, is said to be on the brink of bringing its Android One phone program to the U.S. According to the well-sourced folks at The Information, the company plans to launch the first low-cost phone under the Android One banner here sometime "before the middle of the year," with prices starting in the $200 to $300 range.
Yawn, right? More budget-level smartphones -- not exactly earth-shattering stuff, I realize. But hang on, because this move may be far more significant than it appears on the surface.
[To comment on this story, visit JR's Google+ page.]
From the get-go, the whole point of Android One was to make inexpensive Android phones that didn't suck -- phones that were affordable but still decent to use, without all the asterisks that often accompany budget-level devices. Part of that means Google maintains tight control over the software and also guarantees the devices will get reliable and timely ongoing updates -- both security patches and full-fledged OS releases.
Thus far, Android One has been limited to a small number of so-called "emerging markets" -- places like Pakistan and India, where it can be "hard for people" to "get their hands on a high-quality smartphone," as Google explains it. Bringing the program to America, though, would give it a whole new meaning.
In short, it'd help Google move closer to its goal of "fixing" Android -- a goal that started in earnest with the Pixel but remains only half-complete.
The Pixel philosophy
The Pixel, as we've discussed before, is essentially Google's version of an iPhone: a singular high-end device that's controlled end-to-end by one company and meant to represent the best all-around experience its platform can provide.
As I laid out in a previous analysis -- and stay with me, because this is important context for what's happening right now -- it's effectively a way for Google to have its cake and eat it, too:
Android can remain open and available for manufacturers to customize as they wish -- something that's been integral to the platform's success since the start. Customers can choose from a variety of styles and forms, as always, and each will offer its own unique set of advantages. But now, phone-seekers who want a holistic, Google-controlled vessel with all the benefits that approach provides will also have that as a fully realized, consumer-ready option.
The caveat to that, of course, is that the Pixel costs $650. And while the premium market is an important area for Google to address, limiting its efforts to that high-dollar domain excludes a lot of people from getting the Android experience it sees as ideal -- one that's cohesive and easy to use, that puts complementary Google services front and center, and that remains fresh and compelling for an extended period of time by way of reliable updates.
Google ultimately can't "fix" Android if it only goes after people willing to spend $650 on a top-of-the-line phone. Its Pixel strategy is an ambitious effort, to be sure -- but if Google wants its vision for Android to make a meaningful mark on the smartphone market, that can't be the full story.
From one Pixel to Android One
That brings us back to Android One. The program, in its expected new U.S.-based incarnation, could be the missing piece to the puzzle. And the way Google appears to be pulling it off -- by bringing in existing phone-makers and allowing them to create their own self-branded devices with the promise of "major new promotional dollars" if they follow Google's guidelines -- is a fascinating way to make it fit with those broader goals.
Think about it: What does that "partnership"-based setup between Google and different Android hardware manufacturers remind you of? Call me crazy, but it sure sounds an awful lot like a scaled-back and budget-level version of the old Nexus program.
And approaching things in that manner could really be a brilliant maneuver. Once again, Google could have its cake and eat it, too: It could give consumers an option for a better overall user experience -- its own vision for Android, only now within budget-level parameters -- while still allowing manufacturers to do their own thing as an alternative. And unlike on the high-end of the spectrum, where every detail counts and a finely tuned holistic experience is part of the package, letting third-party phone-makers retain some amount of branding and control of these lower-cost devices is a compromise Google could afford to make.
After all, Google may not want to invest the resources in developing its own devices at every level of the Android price spectrum. Creating a comprehensive line of products would be costly, for one, and it'd also risk alienating and irritating third-party manufacturers even more than it (probably) already has. For now, at least, this could be a clever way to accomplish a good-enough-for-the-budget-realm goal while getting just involved enough to maintain critical core standards. (And while the U.S. isn't "the world," of course, it's a start -- and very much in line with how Google often begins strategic endeavors.)
Google may not be able to control Android completely, nor would such a drastic closing off of the platform make sense for the ecosystem in its current state. What the company can do, however, is continue to expand and amplify the options for consumers to get on board with its own vision for how Android should work.
And what we're hearing about with Android One right now sure seems like the next logical step.