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Google’s Android One Budget Smartphone Designs Could Mean More eReading in the 3rd World

Android_One_headLong term readers of this blog know that I am a fan of low-cost Android tablets. I’ve owned quite a few over the past few years and prefer them as my main reading device, so when I read today about Google’s new Android One initiative I was cautiously optimistic.

According to the Google blog:

We’re working with partners on a comprehensive solution—which includes hardware reference platforms—to address the mobile computing needs of those in emerging markets. Android One will provide smartphones that are high quality, affordable and come with reasonable data plans. Our partners will launch an initial range of sub-$100 Android One smartphones starting in India this Fall, with more countries to follow. We’ve long wondered what potential could be unleashed if people everywhere had access to the latest technology and the world’s information. It’s time to find out.

Assuming this works out, Google is going to be coming up with the reference design smartphones for 3rd-party device makers, including Indian firms like Karbonn and Spice, to produce. In fact, Engadget says that one design, which will be made by Micromax, was shown off yesterday. It reportedly features dual-SIM and SD card slots, a 4.5″ screen, and an FM radio, all priced at just $100.

A smartphone with a 4.5″ screen might not be as useful as the 7″ tablets I love, but it is still an improvement over the ereader used in much of the third world: a feature phone. The first world aside, the feature phone is still much more common than smartphones. This has led both nonprofits like Wolrdreader and service providers like Bookmate to target feature phone owners and try to turn them into readers.

As you may know, Worldreader originally launched with the goal of distributing Kindles in Africa, but they later expanded their literacy efforts to include developing a reading app for feature phones. And Bookmate offers a subscription ebook service which support Android, iOS, and even feature phones.

I first heard about this over on Teleread, where I raised the point that we already had cheap Android hardware on the market, including the Aakash tablet in India. The existing cheap hardware is nearly universally bad, so I didn’t see what Google would be adding. The problem we are seeing right now is that the drive to get the price down leads device makers to cut corners,  resulting in flawed in inherently Android devices.

But Google thinks they can fix the problems introduced by the device makers, and that has me intrigued. Part of Google’s plan is to offer preferential treatment as a carrot; Android One smartphones will get the same preferential treatment as the Nexus and Google Play devices when it comes to automatic software updates.

This is a bigger carrot than you might think; bottom of the market devices are usually released with a quick-and-dirty firmware and then never updated, so in addition to saving the device makers money Google is also giving them a strong selling point which will appeal to consumers.

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jjj June 26, 2014 um 5:03 pm

This might raise the quality of some devices but won’t really lower prices and they haven’t told us how they’ll get those "affordable data plans". They aren’t doing anything really to increase sales here, they are however harming western brands and not all that sure how happy folks like Samsung and HTC are right now. It might also harm some part makers if they are not included and long term kill them off leading to a less competitive market.
Hopefully they’ll better support asian SoC makers since they have more than significant share.
Don’t really think this was needed and doesn’t solve much of a problem, they have plenty of problems bigger than this.,

Andrew June 26, 2014 um 5:25 pm

In Canada, where everything costs more than in the US, I just bought a new Android 4.x smart phone for $100 (4″ screen, 4 GB storage, performance is reasonable, not high-end). I assume the same device in the US would be 20-30% cheaper.

So, unless the spec’s for this India smart phone are superior to the one I just bought, the cheap phones are already available in North America, and don’t seem to be harming the high-end folks at all.

Nate Hoffelder June 26, 2014 um 5:34 pm

Was it subsidized?

I’m surprised you got a good 4″ smartphone for $100; a lot of tablets (most, I would say) in that price range aren’t very good.

I wonder if the relative sizes of the smartphone and tablet markets made components like the 4″ screen cheaper?

jjj June 26, 2014 um 8:14 pm

Just a day or 2 ago noticed a nice specs/price device in India and keep in mind that the market there is much smaller than China for now and less competition but it grows fast so prices will keep getting better. Makes you wonder if Google’s goal is not in fact a preemptive strike against Android forks and to make sure their apps are on devices. They kinda lost the China market in that regard and maybe they fear India will have a similar trajectory unless they act.

Xolo Q1011 launched in India as an Amazon exclusive for 9999INR (166$)
5 inch 720p, quad 7 ,1GB RAM, 4GB NAND and microSD, 8MP and 2MP cams, 2250mAh ,143.6 x 72.2 x 8.3 mm
Moto G is 4.5 inch ,lesser cams and no SD and it costs 12499 INR on Flipkart
Maybe a week ago Micromax announced a WP based device with similar specs and slightly cheaper.
I am betting that the 4.5 inch Micromax mentioned at IO has low res maybe 800×480 and then 100$ is not all that great.

In the end the internet and shipping services do allow us to buy from pretty much everywhere. Does it matter all that much if the product comes from Amazon or Alibaba?
You can buy something like the Do0gee DG350 for 100-120$ or 150 on Amazon with 4.7 inch 720p ,quad A7 and so on but no LTE since theer was little need for LTE in the markets china makers were addressing but that is about to change.
Better support from Google would be nice but what they are doing seems excessive and with plenty negatives.

Andrew June 27, 2014 um 12:40 pm

It might be a 3.9″ (or some other number very slightly smaller than 4). No, the phone was not subsidized, that was their cash price with no plan needed. I was replacing a dead phone mid-term, so no subsidy was offered.

You have to define "good" carefully here – to me, a reliable, inexpensive Android phone is "good". It probably stinks for reading, photography, playing games etc – I just use Gmail, texting and calling, and for those three activites, it does the job perfectly.

Destination Infinity June 27, 2014 um 1:38 am

$100 is pretty steep. Feature phones sell for $15 – $50 in the Indian market. I don’t think Google will even be able to touch that market with the current pricing. In fact, I got a nice Lenovo 4″ Android phone with 512 MB RAM and 3G for $100 before 6 months. Micromax and Karbonn have some good models in that price range with full Android. Heck, even Samsung has Android phones for the Indian market below $100 (specs are below par, though).

I think they’ll start at $100, but will eventually try to get it to $50 – $75 in order to tempt feature phone buyers to buy this instead.

eBooks have another issue: Many people are English-literate here, but don’t read much literature in English (unless it’s required for work) – for lit, local language books are very popular. Paperbacks for the Indian market (even from big publishers) are heavily discounted. Piracy is rampant.

Ebook Bargains UK June 27, 2014 um 2:17 am

From our perspective this is an exciting development that demonstrates Google’s global vision. As we’ll shortly be posting on our own blog, we anticipate Google Play will soon be the first western ebook retailer to enter the no-go areas of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

I think jjj is right that Google starting this in India is intended to thwart a repeat of the China experience with Android, but safe to assume Google sees this as a global project, and one which will means more Android devices in more hands in more countries, all able to access the Google Play store.

Nate’s said in a previous post that Google Play could hit 100 ebook stores in the near future, but neither feature phones nor Worldreader Kindles will benefit from Google Play’s expansion.

Nate, you’re right that feature phones are still the biggie in many countries, but smartphones are increasing popular and as this report on the Philippines shows, those making the transition will be opting for cheap local products, not the unaffordable big name brands –

Google is going to be the winner on all fronts, with affordable Google Play friendly Android devices across the globe.

No doubt Google spotted the UNESCO report on world literacy –
– that pointed out the biggest obstacle to people in the Third World reading digitally was not the device or the data plan but simply the lack of content available. Which in turn in large part revolves around the fact that the big western retailers – Google Play aside, just aren’t interested.

Bookmate would appear to be the only rival to Google Play for the Third World readers the other big players think are not worth bothering with (Scribd could be if it could sort payment options) and their focus on feature phones could bring big rewards.

And BTW (since which aggregators supply which stores seems to be a weak area at TDR) indies can now get their titles into the Bookmate catalogue courtesy of the British aggregator Ebook Partnership. Who coincidentally are one of only two indie-friendly aggregators we know of that get you into Google Play (the other being Narcissus).

Nate Hoffelder June 27, 2014 um 6:04 am

Interesting. I hadn’t seen that Tech in Asia story, but I think you just explained what Google really wants. Android One isn’t a move to address a new market; Google’s trying to attract those existing cheap device makers and get them to release devices with GP rather than releasing the cheaper devices (and here is the important part) which Google can’t profit from.

Ebook Bargains UK June 27, 2014 um 10:09 am

Agreed. One of the thing we’ve following on the EBUK blog is the expansion of Chinese operators like Xiaomi who are targeting the nascent markets with cheap devices. They already have their own ebook store in China and its a short step to start providing ebook and other digital content in other countries where they sell the devices, all with the pre-installed Xiaomi store.

Which begs a question you might be able to answer – are the Xiaomi phones outside China Google compatible?

Alibaba is investing in digital delivery in the east and we’re watching closely to see when they will enter the ebook market, in their home and abroad (you’ll no doubt laugh but we’re ranking Alibaba as a possible buyer for Nook now its finally up for grabs – a perfect addition to as Alibaba gears up to take on Amazon in the US.

Nate Hoffelder June 27, 2014 um 10:42 am

So far as I know Xiaomi hardware runs Xiaomi firmware, no matter what market it was sold in. You could probably develop a Google Android firmware for Xiaomi phones but I don’t think Xiaomi has done so.

Nate Hoffelder June 27, 2014 um 6:05 am

"which aggregators supply which stores seems to be a weak area at TDR"

That would be a good area for me to work on, I agree. Do you know if anyone is maintaining a list of which aggregators supply which stores? In light of the Smashwords-Overdrive issue, this is worth a post.

Ebook Bargains UK June 27, 2014 um 10:43 am

We’re working on an up-dated list right now as there’s been so many changes lately(D2D picking up Scribd and Page Foundry, Ebook Partnership picking up eSentral, Magzter, etc).

Our focus is on those that handle indie titles, so won’t include the bigger players like ePub Direct, but we’ll pass on what we come up with and maybe you and your readership can embellish the list further.

Bart Anderson June 27, 2014 um 3:28 am

Nate wrote:
"I am a fan of low-cost Android tablets."

I am too, and I’m curious as to why.

I think I was attracted to the openness, the flexibility, the excitement. Android is like the Wild West, while the iPad was a nicely designed appliance. If Android could be flakey at times, so be it, I could learn more from it.

Even though cost was not a big consideration, it was nice that I could outfit my wife and myself with Kobo tablets for less than half the cost of a new iPad.

I’ve become impressed with how Android makes it possible for a huge population to get tablets and smartphones … and hence to the web, news, books, etc. The Android One announcement just confirms it.

So, Nate (or anyone else attracted to low-end Android), why are *you* a fan? Do you have a post about your Android-love? (I couldn’t find one on your site).

I’m interested in why certain people seem temperamentally drawn to them.

(The cost/quality/features argument has been done to death elsewhere!)

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