Google unveiled its latest attempt to bring smartphone experiences to emerging markets – Android Go – at this year’s Google I/O. Unlike Google’s previous efforts, Android Go is squarely focused on the experiences users have with their devices rather than on providing a substantively different version of Android. Instead, Android Go will act as a form of quality assurance for low-end phones with limited data allowance. Android Go phones will come configured to run apps in a data-saving mode (e.g. Chrome) or even to run “lite” versions of apps such as YouTube by default.
Google’s Android Go fixes the problems that Facebook’s Free Basics faced
Google has wisely decided not to bother trying to push higher hardware specifications but to focus instead on improving the experience users get with the lowest-end hardware. The YouTube Lite app, for example, will show in advance how much data each video will use and will also let users download videos over Wi-Fi to watch later – two features that are not present in the main YouTube app. There is clearly a need for Google to change how Android works at the low end. Ovum’s Consumer Insights survey of three emerging markets in 4Q16 (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand) indicated that half of smartphone owners downloaded/streamed most forms of content less than once a month.
The problem for Google will be getting third-party developers to produce and support a second Android version of their apps, particularly for the low end of the market where the potential earnings are minimal despite the huge user base available. As long as the key communications and social media apps such as Line, WhatsApp, and Facebook are supported in addition to Google’s own apps, this should be enough to offer low-end users a robust smartphone content experience.
Google’s approach stands in stark contrast to Facebook’s Free Basics campaigns, which aimed to address the same problem by zero-rating certain apps. That initiative has run into problems with regulators in many countries over net neutrality concerns and the potential power that Facebook would have to determine the success or failure of different apps. Google was keen to stress that Android Go devices will be open to download any app, not just the optimized ones, and that any developer can produce a compatible app. These measures will mean Google’s solution will be better received by regulators worldwide.
Google has tried before to optimize the Android experience on low-end devices. It put extra effort into lowering the minimum requirements for Android 4.0 and later began the Android One initiative, which promised users a minimum level of hardware requirements along with stock Android and guaranteed security and software updates. While originally intended for the low end of the market, Android One devices can now be found at a wide range of price points, but the initiative has not had the desired impact on improving the quality of devices at the very low end of the market.
Digital Consumer Insights 2017: Emerging Asia smartphone analysis, TE0004-001168 (May 2017)
Smartphone Market Update: Prepare for the 2017 smartphone bloodbath, TE0004-001136 (February 2017)
Mobile Handset Forecast: Sales, Installed Base, ASP, and Revenue, 2016–21, TE0004-001127, (November 2016)
Daniel Gleeson, Senior Analyst, Consumer Technology