There are two billion devices on earth running Google’s Android system right now. That’s a staggering number no matter how one looks at it, least of which when taking into consideration that an Android device can mean so, so many different things.
Whereas Apple can develop iOS knowing exactly the hardware on which it will run, Google has to build Android unsure if the software will operate on a $1,000 South Korean smartphone with the most cutting edge processor or a $70 tablet with the cheapest parts coming out of one of the myriad of Shenzhen OEMs.
Google, obviously, have to design Android for powerful flagships first and foremost (its own Pixel phone and Samsung’s Galaxy line, for example) to keep up with Apple. That means that although Android can run on a budget device — particularly those at the very low-end range — it’s not exactly optimized for the task.
Google announced today an attempt to fix this with “Android Oreo Go Edition.” Developed in partnership with Taiwanese semi-conductor company MediaTek (whose chipsets is widely used in budget handsets), Android Oreo Go is optimized for low-priced (meaning low-spec’ed) devices in the following ways.
This is all an effort to get phones to what Google is keen to call “the next billion” of users, meaning people in developing countries who may not own smartphones yet.
“Android Oreo Go essentially makes Android run better on entry-level smartphones,” says Sagar Kamdar, Android’s director of product management.
Kamdar and MediaTek’s smartphone head T.L. Lee were in Hong Kong today to meet with press after the announcement of the partnership. Lee says the company’s MT6739, MT6737, MT6580 SoCs (system-on-a-chip) have been optimized to run Android Oreo Go and will be ready in devices around “quarter one of next year.”
The two sides worked closely for six months, and this will have far reaching impact on the budget smartphone industry. People who follow my work may know that I get to test a lot of cheap smartphones from little-known OEMs in Shenzhen. These companies have been able to sell phones at low prices — usually under $200 — to developing markets such as India, Indonesia, South America and Africa.
These OEMs are able to keep costs low due to a myriad of factors, including cheaper labor costs, not spending on marketing, and using less-than-flagship level processors from MediaTek. With Android Oreo Go, these companies can in theory lower price even more, because they can trim the minimum required RAM to even less without impacting performance. For example, right now, any phone running Android will need probably at least 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage — any less and the phone is basically unusable. Once Android Oreo Go is widely available, they can pump out something with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage, with a lower price point. That means $130 smartphones now can drop to $70 or $90.
Twenty to thirty dollar difference may not sound like much to relatively affluent readers in the west or in Hong Kong, but every cent matters in developing nations.
“Android needs to work well regardless of if you have a Note 8 or an entry-level device built by anyone in the world,” says Kamdar. “Google wants a phone for everybody, regardless of economic status.”
Another benefit for users is that Android Oreo Go should in theory provide better security for users. MediaTek’s Lee says that because his company worked closely with Google, it can deliver updates and security patches faster to devices running Android Oreo Go.
Kamdar say that working on this new platform with MediaTek taught his team a few things too.
“Optimizing a software to run on so little RAM made us aware of things that we could do better on flagship devices with all the RAM in the world,” says Kamdar, who promises that some performance improvements they made to Android Oreo Go will be applied to the “standard version” of Android.
This is great news, because it’s been an open secret in the Android community that some Android apps, most notably Facebook and its annoying-and-needy Messenger app, use far more data and background resources than they need.
Kamdar declined to speak ill of Facebook’s apps, but he did nod when I said the “Lite” version of Facebook Messenger actually runs better than the heavy, intrusive full version. Expect most Android Oreo Go to take that “Lite” approach.
But ultimately, the main goal of Android Oreo Go is get more users on Android. Google is eyeing that “next billion.”