Compared to the glitz and fanfare surrounding Apple's announcement Tuesday of the iPhone 6 and the long-awaited Apple Watch, next week's expected debut in India of Google's Android One smartphones should be a more modest affair. It certainly will be treated that way by the media.
That's totally understandable: After all, when it comes to capturing the attention of the tech industry (and tech-savvy consumers), nobody can compete with Apple.
Yet Android owns nearly 85% of the worldwide smartphone market, according to Q2 numbers from both IDC and Strategy Analytics. Meanwhile, iOS has fallen to less than 12% from 18% three years ago. Based on those numbers, Android One devices could outsell the iPhone 6 globally over the next year.
This is not to suggest that Android One will steal away customers from Apple. That's crazy talk. Apple focuses exclusively on the high end of the market, and Apple customers are notoriously loyal. I'm fairly certain that a huge majority of people who will buy the iPhone 6 already own or have owned older versions of Cupertino's sleek smartphone. They're lifers, and gladly so.
Android's recent growth, in contrast, has been "fueled by gains in the low ($100 to $200) and ultra-low end (sub-$100) of the market," IDG reports. The Android One is targeting those same markets already dominated by the search giant, which might lead you to ask, "What is Google trying to accomplish here?"
That's simple: Google wants to impose some quality control on the low end of the market. Ever since Google launched Android more than five years ago, it has granted OEMs wide latitude regarding hardware parts and modifications to Android's open source code. The result has been hundreds of Android models, many running ancient versions of the mobile OS, along with pre-installed bloatware from both manufacturers and carriers.
Google knows these inconsistent experiences are bad for business, not just because many Google services won't work on some Android devices -- and use of Google services is a crucial part of the company's business model -- but also because they do nothing to build loyalty to Android. Android One is supposed to change that by provider manufacturers with specs for hardware parts, up-to-date versions of Android, and faster upgrades.
Alhough Android One initially will target emerging markets and first-time smartphone owners, look ahead a few years and you can imagine inexpensive Android One devices eating away at the high end of the Android market, where a small number of phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One M8 and LG G3 have been trying to compete with the iPhone.
Here's why: While most iPhone owners are always willing to pay a premium for Apple's smartphones (and, really, any Apple product), many high-end Android device owners shell out relatively big bucks (usually as part of a two-year carrier contract) to get a current version of Google's mobile OS along with hardware that doesn't feel cheap.
But if Android One delivers a quality Android experience with reasonably acceptable hardware, many high-end Android owners will be more than willing to spend less to get what they need (as opposed to what they want).
I'm one of them. I love my HTC One, but if I wasn't locked into a two-year deal with Verizon, I would have snatched up the Nexus 5 last year for $349 without a contract.
Samsung, the leading Android manufacturer, knows all too well that this race to the bottom could devastate its high-end, high-margin business. It's one of the reasons the company developed its own mobile OS, Tizen. And the other high-end Android OEMs, such as LG and HTC, have their own financial struggles.
If you're a satisfied, high-end Android device owner, this might seem like a gloomy prognosis. But I think trying to make the less-expensive Android devices better not only will help Google in the long run, it will be good for consumers. Smartphones break, get lost, and get stolen with amazing frequency. Why continue paying top dollar (either through an unlocked device or a prohibitive carrier contract) for what essentially are disposable devices?