How Android One could complete Google's grand Android plan

With the company's low-cost, closely controlled phone program reportedly coming to America, the missing piece of the puzzle may finally be apparent.

Android One - Google
JR Raphael

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. — for real this time! New rumors suggest the freshly announced Moto X4 could arrive with Android One branding in America practically any minute now. Those reports echo previous rumors from earlier this year and follow word from way back in January that Google was working to launch its first U.S.-aimed Android One phone sometime "before the middle of the year."

Yawn, right? More mundane midrange smartphones — not exactly earth-shattering stuff, I realize. But hang on, because this move is far more significant than it appears on the surface.

From the get-go, the whole point of Android One has been to make reasonably priced Android phones that don't suck — phones that are affordable but still decent to use, without all the asterisks that often accompany lower-priced devices. Part of that means Google maintains tight control over the software and also guarantees the devices will get timely and reliable ongoing updates — both security patches and full-fledged OS releases. That sort of assurance, as you probably know, basically doesn't exist outside of Google's own Pixel phones nowadays.

Initially, Android One was 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 explained it. Over the past year, Google has quietly expanded the program with the launches of Android One phones in areas like Japan and Taiwan. The company now describes Android One as "a collaboration between Google and [its] partners to deliver a software experience designed by Google."

And that takes us to today and the bigger picture of what's happening with Google's increasingly ambitious Android-related hardware efforts. Plain and simple, bringing Android One to America is the next logical step in Google's multifaceted, long-term plan to "fix" Android — a goal that picked up pace with the Pixel but remains only half-complete.

Android One could be the missing piece to the puzzle.

The Pixel philosophy

To get to the significance of Android One, we first have to talk a little bit about the Pixel. You know the deal by now, right? The Pixel 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 I swear 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 — a price that's likely to remain constant or possibly even climb higher with this fall's expected second-gen model. 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 the company 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 goes only 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, the Pixel alone can't be the full story.

From one Pixel to Android One

That brings us back to Android One. The program, in its expected U.S.-based incarnation, could provide the thus-far-absent elements that complement the Pixel and flesh out the lineup of "ideal Android" (as defined by Google) devices. 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, as the well-sourced folks at the The Information explain it — is a fascinating way to make the effort fit in 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 lower-priced-specific version of the old Nexus program.

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- to midrange-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 can 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 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-affordable-realm goal while getting just involved enough to maintain critical core standards. (And while aiming an effort at the U.S. isn't the same thing as bringing it to the world, of course, it's a significant step — and very much in line with how Google tends to ramp up strategic endeavors.)

Aside from the big picture, platform-level considerations, Google clearly knows it needs some sort of lower-priced option within its own product portfolio. The evidence is written all over the walls of the company's Project Fi wireless service, which works only with specialized phones made to handle its unusual multi-network approach

Google took the atypical step of continuing to sell 2015's Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P phones — priced at $199 and $399, respectively — as options for new Fi subscribers all the way through the early parts of this summer. The phones are still listed on the Fi site now, alongside the current Pixel, but they're currently out of stock. That makes sense: With Google's two-years-from-the-first-date-of-sales update guarantee, those devices both reached their end-of-guaranteed-support status this month.

Android One could fill that void. It could allow Google to offer a full range of "elevated experience" options, with its own top-of-the-line and tightly controlled flagship at the high end and its partner-made, partially controlled devices beneath. And sure enough, rumors point to U.S. Android One devices being Fi-compatible out of the box. See how all the pieces fit together?

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 a significant step in pushing that effort forward — and making it matter for more than just a small sliver of the phone-buying public.

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