Google's push to bring apps to low-end Android devices

Posted on May 22, 2017 by Eric Benjamin Seufert

At its I/O event last week, Google launched Android Go, a version of the Android operating system specifically designed and optimized for low-end devices. Going forward, all Android phones with 1GB of RAM or less will automatically run Android Go; in addition to memory optimizations, the low-end version of the OS will make it easy for users to track their data usage and will also highlight a selection of apps appropriate for budget phones in the Play store.

The last point is probably the most interesting to app developers: the selection of curated apps in Google Play on Android Go will each be less than 10MB in size, work when a phone isn't connected to the internet, and run smoothly on phones with very little RAM. On stage at Google I/O, Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO, announced that Android has reached 2BN MAUs, and that Android Go is designed to accommodate the next billion Android smartphone owners.

Android Go isn't Google's first attempt at building products specifically for the developing world. At the 2014 Google I/O event, the company introduced Android One, a hardware and software specification for l0w-cost Android phones. Google designed the specification and worked with OEMs for manufacturing; the first generation was made by Indian brands like Micromax and Karbonn. Android One is mostly seen as unsuccessful, however: Google's OEM partners weren't incentivized to support the program because there was little room for cross-model differentiation due to Google's hardware specifications, diminishing their ability to make profits.

But Android Go is purely a software initiative, with a specific emphasis on the Play store. This could be an attempt by Google to not only increase Android adoption in the developing world but also to increase adoption of its flagship services like YouTube (Android Go will ship with a version of YouTube that is optimized for the OS: YouTube Go).

In many developing countries, mobile is the primary means by which people connect to the internet: in India, for instance, 77% of urban smartphone users and 92% of rural smartphone users only connect to the internet with their phones. And India is the second largest smartphone market in the world, behind China and ahead of the US: the country was a major focus of the Android One initiative, and the same is likely true for Android Go.

Despite this, feature phones still reign supreme in India: the country is the largest feature phone market in the world as consumer preferences lean towards durability and battery life. Another reason might simply be the irrelevance of apps given the high cost, on a relative basis, of mobile data: what's the point in owning a smartphone when most apps are too expensive to download? Data tariffs in India as a percentage of Gross National Income stand at 2.6% compared to about 0.4-0.5% in the developed world.

This is expected to change, though: analysts expect data tariffs in India to drop by about 75-80% over the next few years. And so Android Go might be launching at an opportune time -- not just for Google, but also for app developers eager to reach users in India and elsewhere in the developing world.