According to Google, Android One is the “purest form of Android.” Last year’s HTC U11 carries the Android One designation, and Nokia (among other manufacturers) announced three new Android One phones at this year’s Mobile World Congress. Unlike Android Go, which is a low-impact version of Google’s mobile OS designed to run smoothly on lower-end hardware, Android One refers to a stock Android experience, similar to what you get on Google’s Pixel phones.
It wasn’t always like this. When Google launched the Android One initiative back in 2014, it was a very different concept. As emerging markets grew and buyers’ tastes shifted, Google changed Android One to reflect it. Let’s look at what Android One was, how it changed, what it is today, and why you should care.
Android One: Years One and Two
Android One began in 2014, when then-senior vice president of Android, Chrome, and Apps (and now CEO of Google Inc.) Sundar Pichai announced it to the world at that year’s Google I/O conference. The plan then was to quickly reach emerging markets with affordable Android phones that met a certain standard and put “the same knowledge” at everyone’s fingertips. Four months after that bold claim, the first Android One phones hit the shelves in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and other South Asian markets, retailing for just over $100.
The plan to reach a billion extra buyers with Google devices had not paid off after just one year. Google expanded the scope of Android One in 2015 with the Infinix Hot 2 X510, which first launched in Nigeria and later arrived in Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, and Uganda.
2016-2017: The Turning Point
Two years after Android One launched, it started to shift. The program had, in the words of Google’s Jamie Rosenberg, been “expanded” to include “new partners, geographies, and price points,” including Japan and Turkey.
After another year, Android One was revamped with a new set of guarantees: no bloatware, the latest Google apps, security, and a guarantee of “timely upgrades to the latest Android OS.”
The latest Android One phone, the Xiaomi Mi A1, went on sale in September 2017. Sporting dual cameras, USB-C, and a 5.5-inch HD display, it was clear that the game was no longer about mass market feature phones, although that strategy appeared to finally be paying off.
2018: Android One Now
Fabian Teichmueller, who heads up Android partnerships at Google in the UK and has been working closely with Nokia brand licensee HMD Global at a European level, explained Google’s current vision of Android One. “In terms of the customer proposition, there’s three key pillars of Android One. The first one is it’s smart, so it’ll have a really simple UI. It’ll always come with the latest version of Android and have two years of updates, so it’s very closely aligned to what the HMD value proposition is.” He added, “It’s secure, so it’ll always have security updates for the first three years, it has [Google malware detection software] Play Protect, and then what we in our consumer-facing language call ‘Simply Amazing’.
It’s also about the hardware itself. According to Teichmueller, “We work very closely with our OEM partners to make sure that on a set of key metrics, these devices [are rated] very highly on speed, on battery performance and on storage out of the box, so that over time, Android One becomes a seal of approval for consumers, that they can trust the durability and the performance of these devices.”
Android One, Android Go, and Pixel
Android Go, a scaled-down, less taxing version of Android 8.0 Oreo, appears to be picking up the original mantle adopted by Android One. Nokia’s own Android Oreo Go Edition phone (the Nokia 1, pictured above) will be available in certain markets for around $85, and other vendors will offer their own versions, like ZTE’s Tempo Go.
Meanwhile, Google’s own Pixel line superceded Google’s Nexus range to serve as the company’s own flagship phones. They’re first-party devices at least in name and branding, while Android One will offer Pixel-like functionality from third-party manufacturers. Jeff Yee, ZTE’s vice president of product marketing and strategy, mentioned that Android One is, “Like Pixel but not on Pixel hardware.”
By that he means you get a very similar, uncluttered UI, Google Assistant, and two years’ worth of guaranteed updates, along with solid battery life, durable hardware, and all those other niceties Teichmueller mentioned above.
Don’t expect there to be any hard rules about what does and doesn’t constitute Android One. There’s no apparent spec requirement, other than the phones must fit a vague definition of being good. It also appears to be more collaborative in spirit than the Nexus range was, with OEMs working with Google, rather than just handing down the commandments.
“Android One is more about branding,” Yee said. “Android One is a brand that means it’s Google-certified Android.”
If that means Android phones will receive software updates in a more timely manner, we’re all for it, no matter what it’s called.