Android Intelligence Analysis

What the hell is happening with Android One?

Google's once-pivotal program for exceptional yet affordable Android phones seems to be fading — and maybe for good reason.

Android One - Google
Google / JR Raphael, IDG

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Not long ago, a low-profile program called Android One looked like it could be just the one-two punch Android needed.

Android One, like lots of Google initiatives, has had a long and winding history with plenty of twists and turns. When Android One first came into the picture in 2014, it was described as an effort to "make high-quality smartphones accessible to as many people as possible." The focus was squarely on bringing affordable phones with exceptional experiences to emerging markets — places like Pakistan and India, where it could be "hard for people" to "get their hands on a high-quality smartphone," as Google put it at the time.

But that was just the start of Google's Android One ambitions. Three years later, in 2017, Google expanded the program with the launch of Android One phones in places like Japan, Taiwan, and eventually the United States. The company changed its description of the effort from that original small-scale focus to the much broader vision of a "collaboration between Google and [its] partners to deliver a software experience designed by Google," with a guarantee of reasonably timely ongoing operating system updates and an experience that'd be free from all the bloat and shenanigans baked into so many Android products.

Sound familiar? It should. It's basically the same concept we see with Google's own self-made Pixel phones, only scaled down a bit and with other manufacturers involved. Or, to zoom back even further into Android nerdland, it's incredibly similar to what we used to see with Google's Nexus phones many moons ago — where Google would bring in other phone-makers to handle the hardware but then maintain complete control over the software, support, and overall user experience itself. (In the Nexus scenario, of course, the phones were branded as Google devices. But that surface-level distinction aside, the situation is almost eerily comparable.)

Over the last few years, Android One has grown more and more mature, with a lineup of impressively decent budget-level and even midrange devices made by the likes of Nokia, LG, Motorola, and a handful of other companies. Those phones have consistently been ahead of the pack when it comes to the ever-important area of Android upgrades, with post-sales support that puts most other options — including those that cost four to five times as much — to shame.

Lately, though, something strange has been happening. The once-thriving Android One program seems to have quietly faded into an almost forgotten footnote. The pace of new devices showing up in the program's virtual shelves has slowed down to a trickle, and the phones that are still alive and kickin' within the Android One walls are failing to meet their one-time promises of fast and frequent software updates.

So what in the world is happening? I'm a curious creature, and I found myself scratching my wooly man-noggin to little result (aside from itch satiation) trying to figure it out. So I decided to dig a little deeper to see what I could find. And, well...

The Android One oddness

Let's start with the first front — the dearth of recent Android One devices and the apparent lack of attention Google is devoting to the program (a program for which it had previously promised to provide "major promotional dollars," according to a 2017 report).

All you've gotta do is look at Google's official Android One website to see the unavoidable signs that something unusual is afoot. Right under the top-of-page headline promising phones that are "secure, up-to-date, and easy to use" is a graphic showing the Nokia 5.3 — a phone that was announced an entire year ago, last March, and is still running 2019's Android 10 software, nearly seven months after Android 11's release. Yeaaaaaaaaah. I'm no mathematician, but something sure doesn't seem to add up.

And the disconnect only gets even more blatant from there: That primary front-and-center graphic with the Nokia 5.3 actually describes the phone as having "the latest Android 10 operating system" — despite the fact that Android 10 hasn't been "the latest" Android version since last September. Um, right.

Android One Website Google

The other "latest phones" featured on the page aren't any better. One of the top devices shown on the Android One landing page, the Motorola One Action, came out at the end of October — in 2019. It also has yet to receive the now-seven-month-old Android 11 update, despite being part of the Android One program.

Motorola, for its part, seems to have mostly just moved on from its Android One focus. Confusingly, it's continued to release devices with that One branding as part of their titles — like last year's Motorola One Fusion and Motorola One Hyper — but it's seemingly reclaimed that branding as its own, without any of the Android One associations or promises.

So what about Nokia — the company that went all in with Android One and that I once labeled as the "unlikely new Android underdog"? I reached out to that company's media relations department multiple times over the past week to ask for an explanation on both its unprecedented failure to provide timely updates to its current crop of Android One phones and its sudden slowdown in new Android One device releases, and I've yet to receive any response.

What we can say is that first, Nokia's had some public struggles over the past months — with reports last February that the company could be "exploring strategic options," including a possible sale or merger. (Those reports were later shot down, but the fact that such talk is even out there is never a great sign.) Just this past Friday, the company's chief product officer and one of its most prominent public figures announced his departure — which may or may not have any direct connection to whatever's going on with all of this, but again, doesn't help with the perception of an organization that's adrift.

As for Google, I asked the company if there was anything it could share about whether Android One was still considered an active effort — and if so, what exactly was going on with (a) the considerable slowdown in new phones coming out within the Android One umbrella and (b) the apparent failure by practically every existing Android One device-maker to meet its timely software update promise in this latest upgrade cycle. In response, a company spokesperson sent me the following statement:

Android One is a living program that continues to grow with successful device launches. New phones that meet the elevated software requirements set by Google will be able to be part of the program in the future. And as before, these devices come with security protection integrated into every layer, ongoing updates, and a simple interface free of duplicate apps. While we have nothing to announce regarding the future of the Android One program today, we will continue to work with our partners to bring great Android devices to market.

I pressed a bit further and asked if there was anything more specific that could be said to explain the situation with all of the still-pending Android One software updates, some seven months after Android 11's release, as well as with the recent lull in new Android-One-associated device releases — but I haven't received any additional responses.

There is, of course, one perfectly logical possible explanation to all of this — a narrative that ties all the pieces together and certainly seems like a sensible answer to why Android One has gone from front and center to faded and forgotten. Rev up that beautiful mammal brain of yours: It's time to explore an all-too-plausible-seeming theory.

The bigger Android One picture

Stay with me for a sec, 'cause there's some important context we need to think through to set the stage for this sudsy soap-opera drama. Back when Android One first expanded from its initial "emerging market" focus, y'see, my favorite writer in the world — an extraordinarily handsome and humble fella — made some astute observations about how the program could be the brilliantly conceived missing piece to Google's grand Android puzzle.

Go, go, gadget quoting machine:

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 Google-controlled vessel with all the benefits that approach provides will also have that as a fully realized, consumer-ready option.

Google already provided that same possibility with its own self-made Pixel phone, of course — but at the time, Google was selling only a single high-end (and high-priced, for that era) Pixel model. That meant the majority of phone buyers were never gonna get the Android experience Google clearly saw as being optimal — 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.

And that's where Android One came into play: By offering a "Pixel lite" sort of experience at an affordable price, Google could bring its vision for how it wanted Android to appear to a much larger base of people — despite the fact that it wasn't ready to make its own lower-priced Pixel model at that point.

To quote my favorite humble writer once more:

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.

So what's changed since then? Ding, ding, ding! You got it: Google started making its own affordable Android phone with its ideal software setup and self-controlled, super-speedy software updates. That's precisely what the Pixel "a" line is all about, and with a price of 350 bucks, it brings the same optimized experience we first saw in the high-end Pixel into a much more affordable form. It is the "Pixel lite," without any of the asterisks Android One involves in comparison.

With Google selling its own completely self-controlled Pixel phone for 350 smackeroos, then, what reason does it have left to really, truly care about Android One in the way it once did? The entire reason Android One originally benefitted Google is made mostly redundant and unnecessary by the Pixel "a" line's existence. For the most part, an Android One phone is a watered-down, lesser version of a Pixel "a" device, and it's typically sold for pretty darn close to the same price (sometimes even more).

When you combine that fact with the shifting Android landscape — what we talked about a minute ago with Nokia combined with LG's potentially fatal current struggles, one-time Android One partner HTC's increased irrelevance, and the lack of any real motivation for an already-successful-on-its-own phone-maker like Samsung to participate in this sort of effort — it kinda makes sense that Android One would start to fizzle, doesn't it?

I mean, think about: The program's most prominent players are all having their own issues, and Google simultaneously now has its own fully self-controlled product to serve the program's original purpose even more effectively. It also has the ultra-low-end-focused Android Go program to address the super-affordable, sub-$200 domain that the Pixel line doesn't (yet) cover. Really, it's no wonder the Android One promise and everything around it seem mostly out of mind.

And you know what? This is admittedly reading between the lines, but if you look back at Google's statement on the subject, it seems almost deliberately worded to avoid saying anything substantial about the program's long-term fate. Yes, it says that Android One is a "living program that continues to grow" — but look closely at that last line (the emphasis here being mine):

While we have nothing to announce regarding the future of the Android One program today, we will continue to work with our partners to bring great Android devices to market.

Nothing to announce about the program's future today? That sure isn't the same as saying "This program isn't going anywhere, bucko!" And continuing to work with partners to bring great Android devices to market? Note the lack of a mention of Android One, specifically, as part of that proposition.

When I wrote about Android One's potential back in 2017, I noted how the effort could fill the then-glaring void of an optimal Google experience within Android at the sub-flagship price range. As I said at the time:

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.

Well, guess what? Here we are, four years later — and Google has taken that ambitious leap into the affordable Android phone market. It has invested the resources in developing its own devices at lower price points, and by most counts, the first Pixel "a"-line phones have sold quite well, relatively speaking.

Google may not be ready to pull the plug on Android One yet, but looking at all the variables surrounding the state of the program, it's hard not to wonder if the clock is already ticking — and, in one way or another, if it's just a matter of time until the seconds run out.

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