Google has been investing in handset platforms for the Indian market almost since it developed Android, but a new partnership with Reliance Industries (RIL) – parent of disruptive Indian operator Reliance Jio – may provide its best opportunity yet to shape the user experience in this huge market.
It is important for Google to inject as much momentum as possible into Android in India, which will be a significant target market for Huawei’s new alternative mobile operating system, Harmony. Android is dominant in India, and has been implemented on many of the low cost models that have driven smartphone adoption in the market. However, the developer and user base is fragmented between many different Android variants, and some of the user experiences fall well short of the minimum, uniform standards that Google has so often tried – with limited success – to impose on the platform.
It has expressed determination to control the user experience in India, and other emerging economies such as parts of Africa, more effectively. This is critical – consumption of applications, content and advertising is shifting from PCs to mobile devices everywhere, but for many Indian and African users, the handset is the only internet access device. So for Google – or Facebook – to generate revenues from this burgeoning user base, they have to ensure their apps and adverts are at the heart of the experience.
Harmony may be a new threat if handset makers – and operators, which still have a very high influence on subscribers’ handsets and user interfaces – want a counterweight to Google and its Android regulations. Indian authorities blow hot and cold about how far to restrict Huawei’s presence in 5G networks, and have barred some Chinese mobile applications, but there is still a clear opportunity for Harmony to expand out of its Chinese home market into others where the Google services that accompany Android – such as Search and Play – are not as established as they are in the western markets.
Google has received a major boost to its efforts to remain dominant and to influence the Android user experience in India. This is a co-development partnership with RIL, which will relate in a low cost smartphone running a Google-approved user interface, in time for the major festival of Diwali in November. That will be launched with attractive discounts and service incentives, according to sources, and could result in huge numbers of sales, given that Jio is the largest mobile operator in India, with a strong track record of shifting very large numbers of handsets on the back of aggressive mobile broadband offers.
The device is expected to be priced around $50 (subsidized to the tune of $20 a device by Jio) and there will be 4G-only and 5G versions. It is currently being tested by several potential local or international manufacturers – Dixon Technologies, UTL Neolyncs, Flextronics and Wingtech Mobiles. The device will then be available only via RIL’s JioMart and Reliance Digital stores, bundled with a Jio SIM card.
The development pact followed Google’s purchase, last year, of a 7.73% stake in Jio Platforms, the RIL division in which Jio sits. The key target will be to accelerate migration from featurephones (which still account for 300m of India’s mobile user base) to smartphones. This can only be upside for Jio, since it has a 4G-only network, so all the 2G/3G featurephone users are on the networks of its rivals, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea. The pressure is on Jio to offer better migration incentives than those two operators in order to lure their subscribers.
By developing a 5G handset before any Indian operator has 5G spectrum or services, Jio will have a low cost model ready to go as soon as networks are active, which could be as early as next year. Seeding the user base with 5G-ready devices will encourage quick and simple upgrading for users, once 5G is available, and so keep those high end, high value subscribers within its network.
For Google, this could be an important way to shape user experience and so maximize adoption of its applications, both for low end and 5G subscribers – and so to fend off both Apple and, when it launches on Indian handsets in late 2021, Harmony OS.
Despite its obvious incumbent advantages, Android remains fragmented and Google’s own implementations of its OS have not always hit their targets in India. Since 2018, Google has developed ‘Go editions’ of its main Android releases to address the entry level smartphone market. These simplified, affordable devices are vital to expanding the base of Android consumers and developers, since they are typically targeted at encouraging featurephone users in emerging economies to upgrade.
Google is clear that, if it can control the user experience for users of low end devices, at least some of those consumers will upgrade to bigger smartphones and applications over time, and will hopefully take Google’s particular take on Android with them. “Entry level devices are the gateway to the internet for many people, and we want to make sure everyone has a great experience when they use these devices,” said Sameer Samat, VP of product management for Android and Google Play.
All core Google apps, including Maps, YouTube, Assistant and Gmail, are implemented in a low-footprint way in Android Go, so they require about 50% less memory, and deliver a better user experience than competitive Android apps, further encouraging users to stay in the Google garden. The smaller apps also ease the burden of OS updates for OEMs and operators. A core package of bundled apps includes YouTube Go, Maps Go and Google Go – a subset of the search engine that provides access to information by tapping the screen rather than typing.
Google claims that, since 2018, Android Go – despite initial lack of enthusiasm in key markets like India – has been installed on over 100m handsets.
Last summer it launched Android 11 Go Edition which can load apps 20% faster than before – important in low cost devices with constrained memory and processor resources (though the new OS also raises the RAM ceiling to 2GB).
This came six years after Google’s first big Android push into India in 2014 with Android One, a reference platform to enable vendors to launch very low cost smartphones. Google provided a complete environment including guaranteed updates for two years and the initiative targeted sub-$100 unsubsidized handsets. This would ensure a bug-free, up-to-date experience for users, to encourage usage, and would enable Google to assert its own services and a unified user interface of its own design.
However, only a year after launch, analysts at CCS Insight were writing in a report that Android One had had “limited direct effect on the market, despite initial enthusiasm for the program. Sales of Android One-based smartphones began more than half a year ago in India but volumes don’t stand out.”