In the developed world, smartphones are ubiquitous. They’re so common, many device makers have given up on selling non-smartphones entirely. But that’s not the case in the developing world, where consumers are still in transition. This market opportunity has often been referred to as "the next billion," and many companies have made it their priority to focus on it. Research firm IDC reports that in India, smartphone sales have exploded 186 percent in growth in just the last year, with 78 percent of sales coming from devices priced below $200.

Nokia has made the next billion a big part of its business for years, first with the Asha line of phones, and now with its Android-powered Nokia X series. Nokia’s new parent, Microsoft, has also pushed its Windows Phone platform even lower in price in order to capture the rapid growth of emerging markets. Mozilla is doing the same with its Firefox OS platform.

Android has been popular in emerging markets for a long time, but Google first expressed explicit interest in this market when it launched Android 4.4 KitKat last year. It was designed specifically so it would run well on the lower-cost hardware that usually finds its way to emerging markets. At its launch last fall, Google's senior vice president, Sundar Pichai, said: "As we get on our journey to reach the next billion people, we want to do it on the latest version of Android." And now, with Android One, Google’s showing that Pichai’s vision has legs.

Android One ensures a uniformly decent experience on low-end devices

Android One is a reference platform — it’s a set of rules that device makers can follow to make low-cost phones. It makes it easier for manufacturers to develop and produce devices, because Google is doing all of the hard work figuring out materials costs. For Google, it ensures that even low-end devices can run its software and run it well, providing everyone with a uniformly decent experience. Where KitKat was Google’s effort to address the software issues on low-end devices, Android One is now doing the same for hardware. The company calls it a "a comprehensive solution to address the mobile computing needs of those in emerging markets."

The first Android One devices will be produced by Indian manufacturers this fall. An example device that Google demonstrated this week featured a 4.5-inch display, support for two SIM cards at once (an important feature for many in developing markets), an SD card slot, and an FM radio. Critically, it is said to cost less than $100 to make, far less than the cost of most smartphones sold in the developed world. That means the Android One handsets will likely retail for less than $200 unlocked, competitive with other devices in their target markets.

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Google isn’t just controlling the hardware with Android One, either — it’s also making sure the devices run the latest versions of Android and aren’t encumbered by unnecessary software additions, which could endanger whatever performance advantage KitKat had given them. Android One phones will run stock Android, get automatic updates, and access Google’s Play Store for apps and media content.

Controlling hardware and software on Android devices is a big shift for Google

For Google, a hardware reference platform and far-reaching software rules represent a big shift from how it’s handled Android in the past. The company’s Nexus program has provided developers with fast updates and a "pure" Android experience, but those devices have never been marketed broadly to consumers. The Google Play Edition program has offered stock software with more hardware choice, but so far, most GPE phones have been expensive. In order to make a low-end phone work as well as a high-end one, Google’s finding that it has to turn the screws a little harder than it would for a big, fast Samsung or HTC.

Although KitKat may be starting to have an impact, low-end Android phones in developing markets are still often a mess. Many run outdated versions of Android and don’t have access to the full suite of services and apps in Google’s Play Store. According to IDC, the top-selling phones in India are Samsung’s Galaxy Star Pro and Galaxy S Duos 2, which have small, low-resolution displays and run versions of Android that are at least two generations old. India’s other market leaders, Micromax and Karbonn, count low-end devices as their top sellers as well. Unsurprisingly, both of those companies have been tapped for the Android One program.

Motorola proved that user experience on a low-end device matters

Motorola is an early example of how important a good user experience is to the low end of the market: its stripped-down, low-cost Moto G and Moto E smartphones run stock versions of the latest Android builds and provide a user experience not seen before at this price level. They were quick successes, rapidly outpacing the meager sales of Motorola’s higher-end Moto X and becoming the most popular smartphones the company has ever produced.

Nokia’s, Microsoft’s, and Mozilla’s biggest challenges in developing markets have been beating the onslaught of cheap Android phones from Asian manufacturers. In the case of Nokia and Microsoft, they could point to the much better and much more cohesive user experience that their devices provided. But with Android One, that advantage likely won’t last — provided Google is committed to ensuring the experience stays consistent.

Google’s already winning the market-share wars in both developed and developing countries. With Android One, it’s poised to keep its lead and take the lion’s share of the next billion, too.

Lead image composite by T.C. Sottek