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Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority

Ample competition has ensured that mid-range smartphones are doing better than ever now, and there’s no dearth of brands aiming to make the flagship experience more affordable for everyone. However, it wasn’t all that long ago that the disparity in the user experience between a budget and a high-end phone was a lot more significant. The first few generations of budget smartphones were particularly bad, owing to their underpowered processors and bloated software

Read more: Stock Android vs Android One vs Android Go

In 2014, Google stepped in with the Android One program to clean up the Wild West budget Android landscape. The result was a clean and clutter-free version of Android that came with hardware guidelines to guarantee a quality user experience.

However, eight years later, all that remains of the program is a website that appears to be stuck in 2023, fleeting references on community forums, and a pretty big question — what the heck happened to Android One?

Remind me again, what was Android One?

As smartphone penetration grew in developing markets, dozens of smartphone brands popped up to capitalize on a growing audience. Unfortunately, not every brand was equipped to give users a quality user experience, and more often than not, the phones had poor hardware, bloatware, or a combination of both. They also sullied Android’s image as a refined operating system.

Go back in time: Google and Android One — Is this the new Nexus line?

So what could’ve gone wrong?

Without any official statement on the state of the program, we only have snippets of information to go on. However, it isn’t hard to see the bigger picture.

After reading what exactly the Android One program required of device makers, I’m not surprised it flopped. There are so many restrictions. Google even had the say on the industrial design and go-to-market strategy for each device. What was really in it for the OEM?

— Mishaal Rahman (@MishaalRahman) November 8, 2023

Mishaal Rahman, Senior Technical Writer at Esper and ex-XDA whizz, recently talked about the sheer number of restrictions on OEMs shipping Android One devices. His observations hint that Google mandated strict control over the industrial design of any device sold as part of the Android One program. The restrictions extended beyond hardware design too. Google only permitted a total of five pre-loaded apps, including those mandated by operators. And all of these apps would have to be vetted by Google.

Even though these limitations made sense back in 2014, that level of control could very well be considered a stranglehold on creativity. When both the hardware and software stacks between a Moto, Nokia, or Xiaomi phone were essentially the same, there just wasn’t much room for differentiation.

This is truer still in 2023 when the hardware is, for the most part, commodified. Phones are sold on the basis of software experiences, and that’s something no brand could build while being a part of the Android One initiative.

Modern smartphones are sold on software experiences, and Android One didn’t give OEMs much wiggle room there.

There’s also something to be said about the update commitment. While HMD Global managed to do a decent job of keeping its phones updated for the first generation or two, that cadence quickly fell off the cliff.

In fact, almost no OEM was able to consistently deliver fast software updates and we might never find out why. In hindsight, it is almost bizarre considering the limited hardware options and customization-free software. Between phones like the Xiaomi Mi A3 bricking with software updates and HMD users waiting indefinitely for updates, there’s little doubt that something was definitely amiss.

Another factor to consider is that Google too introduced its own budget line of Pixel phones. Starting with the Pixel 3a, the phones were incredibly well-received due to the marriage of rapid updates, flagship-grade cameras, and excellent pricing. These phones competed directly against mid-range Android One devices, leaving little reason for anyone to buy anything but a Pixel.

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