Google’s cheap smartphone program has launched with a whimper

One of many.
One of many.
Image: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
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In September, Google launched its first batch of “Android One” smartphones aimed at customers in emerging markets. Priced at just a little over $100 (despite earlier assurances they would cost no more than $100), the devices were meant to bring some order to the chaos of cheap Android phones. Over the past two months however, reports suggest that all is not going according to plan.

The Android One program’s goal is to help device-makers produce high-quality phones at consistently low prices. Android devices sell for as little as Rs 2,000 ($32) in countries like India—where Google launched the Android One program—but the quality varies and upgrades are generally impossible on the underpowered devices. Google worries that bad early experiences might drive people away from phones running its operating system. Android One, which comes with free data for upgrades, was meant to address this risk.

But not everyone seems to share Google’s enthusiasm.

Soon after the devices launched, industry insiders started grumbling about Google’s heavy-handed approach to the project, namely its desire to control every aspect of the process. (It is a familiar tale.) Critics noted that the devices would have a tough time standing out from the huge range of choices. And the 5,000-rupee to 10,000-rupee price range, where the phones compete, is an increasingly crowded segment of the market in India.

The numbers don’t look good. The Economic Times reports today the fewer than half a million of the three Android One devices launched in September have shipped so far. It bears noting that this period includes the so-called festive season when Indians do the majority of their annual spending. By way of comparison, some 23.5 million smartphones were sold in India in the third quarter of this year.

Moreover, the Economic Times reports, citing five sources, retailers who together control 1,800 shops have declined to stock Android One phones (Quartz visited two large electronics chains in Mumbai and didn’t see any). The retailers are apparently displeased at the decision from Google and its handset makers to go online-only for the launch of Android One devices, following the lead of companies like China’s Xiaomi, which has seen tremendous success in its strategy of periodically releasing a small number of devices online. (Google did not respond to a request for comment.)

Still, Google is pressing ahead. Several new device-makers are expected the join the Android One party soon, and the company wants to take the program to Indonesia next.