India has become the battleground for a new generation of low-cost smartphones, with Google, Microsoft and Mozilla all hoping to lure new users onto their platforms and services.
A recent report from telecommunications equipment vendor Ericsson highlighted why India is such an interesting market. The country added 28 million mobile subscribers during the first quarter, the largest increase of any country. However, that increase came on top of a low base. Just 6 percent of Indians are expected to own a mobile phone in the first half of the year, according to Strategy Analytics.
This opportunity hasn't gone unnoticed by companies that have begun to look elsewhere for growth as sales in Western markets have slowed.
"When I go back home to India ... it is exciting to see the impact phones have on peoples lives, but it's disappointing that less than 10 percent of the population have access to smartphones. We want to change that," said Google's Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Android, Chrome and Apps, during the I/O conference keynote last week.
He hopes to accomplish this with the new Android One initiative, designed to help vendors build high-quality smartphones priced under US$100 thanks to prepackaged reference platforms. The phones will first become available in India from Micromax, Karbonn Mobiles and Spice this fall, according to Pichai.
The Google executive said he had been using an upcoming One phone from Micromax that has a 4.5-inch screen, two SIMs, an SD card slot and an FM radio.
While the first Android One products will be available in India, smartphones based on the initiative will eventually be available worldwide, Pichai said. In general, the growing attention vendors are paying to cheap smartphones will benefit consumers around the world who are on a budget or don't think they need a high-end device. As the difference among features offered by low-cost and expensive smartphones shrinks, the former segment is likely to grow.
All One phones will use the stock version of Android, which runs on Google's Nexus and Play Edition devices and comes with services such as Maps, Gmail and the Play store. When OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and operators want to add localized apps they have to use the Play store, which lets users install and uninstall them as they see fit.
That Google wants more control over Android isn't a surprise. The greater the number of vendors it can convince to use its services, the more money Android will generate for the company. An estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of Android device shipments do not feature Google services, according to market research company CCS Insight.
Reference platforms or designs lower the bar for developing smartphones by providing the components and resources that manufacturers need to quickly and cheaply put out devices. So even companies that lack the huge research and development departments found at Apple or Samsung can still offer competitive products. The reference designs are one of the main reasons smartphones have become much cheaper in the last couple of years.
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