Google's once-pivotal program for exceptional yet affordable Android phones seems to be fading — and maybe for good reason.
Not long ago, a low-profile program called Android One looked like it could be just the one-two punch Android needed.
Android One, like lots of Google initiatives, has had a long and winding history with plenty of twists and turns. When Android One first came into the picture in 2014, it was described as an effort to "make high-quality smartphones accessible to as many people as possible." The focus was squarely on bringing affordable phones with exceptional experiences to emerging markets — places like Pakistan and India, where it could be "hard for people" to "get their hands on a high-quality smartphone," as Google put it at the time.
But that was just the start of Google's Android One ambitions. Three years later, in 2017, Google expanded the program with the launch of Android One phones in places like Japan, Taiwan, and eventually the United States. The company changed its description of the effort from that original small-scale focus to the much broader vision of a "collaboration between Google and [its] partners to deliver a software experience designed by Google," with a guarantee of reasonably timely ongoing operating system updates and an experience that'd be free from all the bloat and shenanigans baked into so many Android products.
Sound familiar? It should. It's basically the same concept we see with Google's own self-made Pixel phones, only scaled down a bit and with other manufacturers involved. Or, to zoom back even further into Android nerdland, it's incredibly similar to what we used to see with Google's Nexus phones many moons ago — where Google would bring in other phone-makers to handle the hardware but then maintain complete control over the software, support, and overall user experience itself. (In the Nexus scenario, of course, the phones were branded as Google devices. But that surface-level distinction aside, the situation is almost eerily comparable.)
Over the last few years, Android One has grown more and more mature, with a lineup of impressively decent budget-level and even midrange devices made by the likes of Nokia, LG, Motorola, and a handful of other companies. Those phones have consistently been ahead of the pack when it comes to the ever-important area of Android upgrades, with post-sales support that puts most other options — including those that cost four to five times as much — to shame.
Lately, though, something strange has been happening. The once-thriving Android One program seems to have quietly faded into an almost forgotten footnote. The pace of new devices showing up in the program's virtual shelves has slowed down to a trickle, and the phones that are still alive and kickin' within the Android One walls are failing to meet their one-time promises of fast and frequent software updates.
So what in the world is happening? I'm a curious creature, and I found myself scratching my wooly man-noggin to little result (aside from itch satiation) trying to figure it out. So I decided to dig a little deeper to see what I could find. And, well...
The Android One oddness
Let's start with the first front — the dearth of recent Android One devices and the apparent lack of attention Google is devoting to the program (a program for which it had previously promised to provide "major promotional dollars," according to a 2017 report).
All you've gotta do is look at Google's official Android One website to see the unavoidable signs that something unusual is afoot. Right under the top-of-page headline promising phones that are "secure, up-to-date, and easy to use" is a graphic showing the Nokia 5.3 — a phone that was announced an entire year ago, last March, and is still running 2019's Android 10 software, nearly seven months after Android 11's release. Yeaaaaaaaaah. I'm no mathematician, but something sure doesn't seem to add up.
And the disconnect only gets even more blatant from there: That primary front-and-center graphic with the Nokia 5.3 actually describes the phone as having "the latest Android 10 operating system" — despite the fact that Android 10 hasn't been "the latest" Android version since last September. Um, right.