Google is launching "Android One" in India, an effort to get high-quality, cheap smartphones into the hands of people in developing countries. Google provides a reference design to OEMs, which then build devices to Google's spec. The devices run stock Android, and Google provides all the updates—you can think of it as a non-flagship version of the Nexus program.
Google has high hopes for Android One, as its blog says it hopes to reach "the next 5 billion" people with the program. Google says only 1.75 billion people have a smartphone, leaving over five billion potential Android users out there.
Most of those five billion people don't have any Internet access at all. These smartphone statistics line up pretty well with stats for the world's disconnected: only one-third of the world is online. A big part of getting online is having a device that can download and render the Internet, and smartphones are the smallest, cheapest Internet browsers we have. Google isn't doing anything to ensure that its Android One phones come with Internet service, but it no doubt hopes getting devices into the hands of users will drive demand for cheap Internet access.
The initial set of Android One devices are from Indian OEMs Karbonn, Micromax, and Spice. Given that they're all built from Google's reference platform and run stock Android, the phones are pretty similar. The big deal is the price, which starts at Rs 6,299, or about $103.
The three devices each have an exclusivity deal with a major online India retailer. The Micromax Canvas A1 is on Amazon, the Karbonn Android One Sparkle V Blue is on Snapdeal.com, and the Spice Android One Dream UNO Mi-498 is on FlipKart. The prices for the three devices are all give or take a few dollars, and they all seem to share a 4.5-inch 854x480 IPS LCD, a 1.3GHz quad-core MediaTek MT6582 SoC, 1GB of RAM, 4GB of internal storage, a 5MP rear camera with flash, 2MP front camera, 1700 mAh battery, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, a microSD slot, dual SIM cards, and an FM radio. Best of all, they all run the latest version of Android, KitKat, without any skins.
Data usage is a big concern in India, so Google has partnered with mobile ISP Airtel to provide free updates to Android One users. We assume that means downloading an update won't count against the data cap. That will come in handy later this year, because Google has promised to upgrade all the devices to Android L. Google also says that "In the coming weeks, we’re making it so that much of YouTube will be available offline in India." This no doubt means the company will just be turning on downloadable videos so that when Indian users do have Internet access, they can fill up their phone with the latest videos for later viewing.
As one of the most populous countries in the world (and Android head Sundar Pichai's country of origin), India was a natural choice for the launch of Android one, but Google has big expansion plans ahead. The company will be moving on to Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal by the end of the year, and it will be adding more hardware partners to the program. Google specifically mentioned Acer, Alcatel Onetouch, Asus, HTC, Intex, Lava, Lenovo, Panasonic, Xolo and Qualcomm as future partners.
$100 for a smartphone might seem like a dirt cheap price to some, but keep in mind that the average yearly income per person in India is only about $1,500. No one in the USA spends a fifteenth of their yearly income on a smartphone. We're still a long way away from something that would be considered "cheap" in India. Cheaper alternatives exist, but Google is trying to strike a balance between "cheap" and "good" with Android One.
If the company ever really hopes to reach five billion people, though, smartphones will need to get a whole lot cheaper.