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Google and Xiaomi revive stalled Android One program for India

[SAN FRANCISCO] Google is teaming with China's Xiaomi Corp to resurrect its Android One smartphone program for India, revamping a stalled effort to showcase its mobile software for users in emerging markets.

Xiaomi's Mi A1 dual-camera device goes on sale Tuesday and will be its first under the Android One banner. Alphabet Inc's search giant started the project in India three years ago to get affordable phones in circulation sporting the latest features, a persistent weakness when compared with Apple Inc's pricier and often beefier iPhones. But early partners, particularly in India, couldn't sell enough of the devices and interest waned.

The Indian partnership marks a departure from Google's earlier cheap-gadgets approach, and is intended to shore up their presence in the world's fastest-growing smartphone market. The Mi A1 is a mid-range phone that will be sold in Indonesia, Vietnam, Russia and Mexico as well. Xiaomi, now the No 2 brand in India, seeks to rejuvenate growth and arrest losses in market share in part by going overseas. Google wants to capture more users while ultimately imposing order on a fragmented Android ecosystem.

"Google came to us in Q4 of last year as they were seeking to evolve their Android One program," Xiaomi Senior Vice President Wang Xiang wrote in an email. "The Mi A1 is an entirely new type of device." The all-aluminum smartphone is Xiaomi's first with a dual camera to be launched in India, and comes with free unlimited storage of photos and videos, he added. Devices will be better optimized for Google Assistant.

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Launched in India at the end of 2014, Android One was a signature project of Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai's, then Google's Android head. A native of the country, he pushed to get more people in emerging markets online and thus onto Google's bread-and-butter services. He also advocated fixes to Android's fragmentation, where most phones with Google's software run older, less secure versions. Android One - envisioned as a way to sell affordable devices with up-to-date software by collaborating with hardware vendors - was intended to help it hit both goals.

At the outset, Google said it was setting manufacturing reference points so its partners could sell devices for near US$100. India's three biggest phonemakers - Micromax, Spice and Karbonn - released a bunch of models priced around that level, but sales numbers were underwhelming. Then came a lull in launches as the program seemed to falter in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Southeast Asia as well.

Xiaomi's new phone is aimed at the middle market, reaching fewer Indian buyers but avoiding the intensely fought-over low end, where brand affiliation matters less and margins are thin. It was SoftBank Group Corp that convinced Google to move away from cheap gadgets, Android Vice President Jamie Rosenberg said. In the past year, the Japanese company announced it would carry phones running Android One specifications for between US$200 and US$500 apiece in its own stores.

Under the re-tooled Android One model, Google is dropping certain specifications that pushed manufacturers to produce cheaper phones. Version 2.0 is less "one-size-fits-all," Rosenberg said. The goal remains the same: Getting the latest Google services in more hands.