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May 18, 2017

The world wants cheap phones, but can Android Go deliver them?

by John_A

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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Google wants to make it easier and cheaper for people all around the world to use and own a smartphone, so it has come up with an Android spin-off designed to work on basic hardware, ready to operate alongside regular Android. If you’ve just shouted out “stop!” because you think we’re talking about Android One; sorry, we’re not. It’s Android Go, Google’s latest project for entry-level smartphone around the world.

There are shocking similarities between the two, so you’re forgiven for leaping to the conclusion. Android One was shown off during Google I/O 2014, when it was pushed as a method for Google to bring, “the next billion” smartphone users into the fold. Android now has two billion daily active users around the world, but the message hasn’t changed with Android Go. It is described as, “a new initiative for entry-level Android devices designed with features relevant to the next billion users.”

However, while the end result Google wants may be the same, the method of attack is different. Not that this may matter, because it faces the same problems that have seen Android One struggle to live up to its promise.

What is Android Go?

Make no mistake, Android Go is very promising. It’s a specially optimized version of Android O, the next version of full-fat Android due later this year, which is built for basic, affordable smartphones with a maximum of 1GB RAM. Most Android phones, even the mid-range ones, come with at least 3GB of RAM today, so we’re talking about really cheap phones for first-time buyers that will likely never be sold in the U.S., the U.K., or any other major smartphone market.

Where it differs from Android One is Google doesn’t seem to be getting too deeply involved with the hardware this time. Android Go is all about getting the software right, and simplifying Android O is just the start. Android Go will run cleverly designed apps which use less data, so it will cost less to use, and it doesn’t require a super fast processor to operate at their best.

For example, Chrome will have the Data Saver feature turned on as standard, and the already-existing YouTube Go app will have a preview function, give a clear indication of how much data will be used up when watching a video, and a way to save videos for viewing later on. Similar features will be added to other Google apps. Carriers will also help out, and Google will integrate easy ways to see how much data, calls, and texts have been used, plus direct links to top-up Pay As You Go plans.

Android Go will automatically roll out to Android devices with less than 1GB of RAM when Android O comes around later this year. Next year, we will start seeing devices with Android Go out of the box.

Google Play and Lite apps

A few data-and-power sipping apps from Google won’t make Android Go better than Android One. No, that’s going to come from a new version of the Google Play store, which highlights the apps tailor-made for Android Go. While we may not always pay much attention, due to our unlimited data plans and plentiful access to Wi-Fi, so-called Lite apps have been around for sometime. Facebook has a Lite app that’s a smaller download, compresses uploads for quick sharing, and is designed to work on slow 2G networks. Twitter’s Lite app is very similar, and the list of other stripped down, commonly used apps is extensive, including ones from Skype, Line, Shazam, Opera, and more.

We haven’t heard about a Pixel Lite, but one may be needed here

Finding them, like finding any new app, has always been a challenge. Search the Google Play store for a Lite app, and most results will be for demo versions of pay apps. Android Go’s store will avoid that pitfall, and bring apps suitable for the operating system to the forefront.

Where Google laid down rules for Android One’s hardware manufacturers to follow, with Android Go, it’s targeting the developer. On its Building For Billions website, it recommends developers pay attention to app size, performance on slow connections, battery efficiency, and localization. It’s telling developers how to get more people using their apps, and in turn getting apps to fill Android Go’s dedicated store.

Android Go sounds like utopia. A glorious, slimmed down Android wonder-scape, where phones not only cost very little to buy, but also cost very little to run, and won’t grind to a halt when opening an app. Here’s to three billion Android users by Google I/O 2018! Except there are a few catches.

Same problems to solve

The biggest catch is Android One hasn’t been a massive success. It hit problems almost immediately, with devices costing more than initially expected, and therefore encountering limited demand. What followed was worse, because Google got all Google about it. What do we mean? Google has a nasty habit of messing around with its products, not sticking with the original plan, or just abandoning them when it gets bored. Android One phones stopped being basic, started getting more technically complex and therefore more expensive, and fragmentation edged its way in as some devices fell behind the promised update schedules. There’s no guarantee the same type of thing won’t happen to Android Go, and its very existence is evidence Google’s also a bit bored with Android One.

Google Pixel XL
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

All the above will only become a concern if Android Go can be found on any phones at all. Android Go is a stock Android spin-off, and the new store, apps, and OS come as a package, so Google must eventually convince manufacturers to install it on their phones, which will likely be the same as convincing them to use regular stock Android. Hardly any manufacturer does that, as they want to add their own software tweaks in. No one was making stock Android smartphones, effectively forcing Google to make its own phones running standard Android. We haven’t heard about a Pixel Lite, but one may be needed here.

India is likely to be a key Android Go market, and at the end of 2016, its top five smartphone manufacturers were Samsung, Xiaomi, Lenovo, Oppo, and Vivo. All five cover Android in a custom user interface, and haven’t been convinced not to do so yet. How Google intends to compel them to do it with Android Go isn’t clear. If it can’t, Google may have more success with local Indian manufacturers, just like it did with Android One. Except none have the selling power of the above five companies, limiting Android Go’s appeal to buyers and developers. And that leads to the same slippery slope Android One appears to be hurtling down. We’ve only seen one Android One smartphone so far this year.

Different route, same roadblock

We want Android Go to be a success. It’s a great idea, and enticing developers rather than smartphone manufacturers effectively tackles the problem that for many, phones are often more expensive to run than to buy. Another sensible shift is that on the surface, Android Go’s success appears to lay with developers rather than Google itself, unlike Android One. Look closer, and this may not be the case.

With Android Go, Google is taking a different route towards the paradise where a billion more eager smartphone owners await, yet the roadblock is still there, and unless it has a very strong plan on how to bypass it which it has yet to share, we may be listening to yet another ambitious plan to reach those billions during a future Google I/O keynote.




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