Android One 2.0: Here's what Xiaomi Mi A1 means for Google's waning project

This is the second outing for Android One. Will it be successful this time around? Let's find out

On 16th September 2014, Google CEO Sundar Pichai took to stage in New Delhi, India and unveiled Android One. The project was launched in partnership with Indian phone makers Karbonn, Lava and Micromax. They made one handset each, priced at around Rs 7,000, aiming to deliver a Nexus-like experience (stock Android and quick updates). All three devices looked different, but were largely the same internally.

Xiaomi Mi A1 Gold variant

Xiaomi Mi A1 Gold variant

That’s because, for devices participating in the Android One program, Google chose the components that manufacturers had to use to qualify. This consistency in hardware would enable the search giant to deploy software updates without much hassle. The company also produced this emotion-inducing advertisement, that didn’t convey what Android One actually meant.

The project was a big failure in India. Retailers reportedly refused to stock Android One phones out of spite, because Google chose to sell them exclusively online at launch. The other problem for these devices were their middling specifications — like a MediaTek chip, 1 GB RAM, 4 GB of onboard storage, an 854 x 480 pixel display, etc. Other manufacturers like Xiaomi, which sold the Redmi 1s at the time, had far superior specs. Benefits like an unbloated software experience or quick Android updates weren’t enough to convince the crowd to settle for weaker hardware.

First batch of Android One smartphones came with entry level specs

First batch of Android One smartphones came with entry level specs

But to be fair, the marketing couldn’t hit very hard on why an Android One phone was better than other Androids. Google possibly couldn’t offend their partners by talking about how bloatware and slow Android updates on other phones aren’t a great experience for users.

And then there’s the software update story — the first batch of Android One phones came with Android 4.4 KitKat out of the box. Android Lollipop, that officially made it to Nexus devices by November 2014, was deployed to these devices after a three-month-long wait.

In 2015, it launched the Lava Pixel V1 in India — an Android One phone that dealt with the complaints of entry level specifications of its predecessors. The phone had a 720p display, better cameras, double the RAM (2 GB) and eight times larger internal storage (32 GB), among other things. This massive spec jump also bumped up the price to Rs 11,000. In typical Google fashion, this device too was marketed with a genuinely cute advertisement, but one that again failed to emphasise what Android One is. Fortunately, this phone that launched with Android 5.0 Lollipop received Android 6.0 Marshmallow soon after its official launch.

This brings us to the announcement where Google and Xiaomi partnered to create the Xiaomi Mi A1 — an Android One phone launched in India in 2017. At Rs 14,999, it costs more than double the original $100 price tag of the first Android One devices from 2014. But for that price, you get a metal-bodied phone with Qualcomm’s mid-range Snapdragon 625 chip, ample 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB storage, a dual camera setup similar to the iPhone 7 Plus or OnePlus 5, USB Type C port, and more. For its price, there’s nothing left to complain with respect to the spec-sheet in this Android One phone. The Xiaomi Mi A1 is also going to be sold simultaneously via an assortment of offline and online partners.

The Mi A1 is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it was unusual to see Xiaomi — a company that is known for its heavily-customised version of Android (dubbed MIUI) — to have a phone in its portfolio sans it. Several stock Android enthusiasts had often wished for a Xiaomi device running pure Android, simply because the company has been offering quality hardware at an extremely competitive price. For instance, with the Mi A1, Xiaomi has become the first company to offer a wide-angle + telephoto camera system for under Rs 15,000.

Image: Tech2/Rehan Hooda

Image: Tech2/Rehan Hooda

There’s no doubt that this phone will become a very good alternative to the recently-launched Moto G5S Plus. Moto G phones have often gotten a nod from experts because of its clean Android UI (parent company Lenovo also shed its custom VibeUI skin on the newest K8 Note). But the bigger question is the ever-evolving definition of Android One. For one, at the Mi A1 event, it was revealed that Google will not be pushing Android updates to the Mi A1 directly. Rather, Xiaomi said it needs to intervene because the Google Camera app doesn’t support dual camera setups yet. That’s why the Mi A1’s camera app is made by Xiaomi. This is a stark departure from the first Android One devices, where Google dictated what internals a device should bear, in a bid to control the software update delivery. To the uninitiated, the Xiaomi Mi A1 is a rebadged Xiaomi Mi 5X that was launched a few months ago in China, which runs MIUI.

The phone comes with Android 7.1 Nougat out of the box, and is said to get Android Oreo “by the end of the year”. This makes it no different than other manufacturers like Nokia, OnePlus, Motorola, who have also committed to delivering Oreo to some of their phones before the end of 2017. Alas, if you want a phone that runs the absolute latest Android version at all times, your only bet today is Google’s Pixel phones.

So, Android One isn’t about quick updates anymore, and neither is it about extremely-affordable smartphones that Google CEO Sundar Pichai wants — Android Go that was shown at this year’s Google IO will seemingly address that segment.

So, where does that leave Android One?

Android Go was announced at Google I/O 2017

Android Go was announced at Google I/O 2017

In my eyes, it appears that it has become the spiritual successor to the company’s doomed Google Play Edition program from 2013. Buying an Android One device today means you’ll get an untouched Android interface and at least two major software updates (even if you don’t get them as soon as Google pushes it out). And that’s not bad news at all!

That’s because this endless demand for untweaked versions of Android stems from phone makers taking their customisations too far — resulting in slower performance, or bad UX, or pre-installed apps that can’t be uninstalled, or delayed software updates. To cite an example, Xiaomi’s own Redmi Note 3 that launched last year is still running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which is two generations older than 2017’s Android 8.0 Oreo.

As a stock Android enthusiast, I wish the Xiaomi Mi A1 is commercially successful, so there will be a Mi A2 someday. I’m also hopeful that more manufacturers come up with their own variants of Android One devices — and not just entry-level or mid-range devices (how about a V30 Android One, LG?).

But more importantly, I sincerely hope there’s clearer messaging for what Android One means from Google. The company is good at marketing some of its products very well, so it shouldn’t be too hard. Here's just one example.

The author has been writing about technology since 2007. He’s often conflicted between what Apple and Google have to offer. You can find him rambling about tech on @r0han.

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