By Rohin Dharmakumar, Founding Fuel ffuel (1)

On September 15, 2014, Sundar Pichai, arguably the second most important Google executive today after chief executive Larry Page, launched the first of Google’s Android One smartphones in India.

Affordably-priced, featuring reasonably good specifications and running unmodified “stock” Android operating system, the new range of phones was described by the media as “Google’s push to rule the smartphone world” in emerging markets. The “pure” and “unadulterated” Android experience was meant to be the clincher.

Yet, in India-easily Google’s most promising market globally (the US is dominated by Apple and in China Google’s services are banned)-Android One has come a cropper. It even featured ignominiously in 2014 year-end ‘flop’ compilations in the press.

Google though maintains that Android One isn’t a failure. “We’ve been very happy with the success of Android One in the last several months, which we see in both high consumer demand and excellent customer reviews,” said Caesar Sengupta, its vice-president who is responsible for Android, through an emailed statement.

“Android One was the belated bear-hug of the Android ecosystem,” says Shiv Putcha, an analyst with IDC’s Asia-Pacific Consumer Mobility team. “Android is a means to an end for Google. They want people to use Google’s services on mobile. But anything that potentially disaggregates them is a threat,” he adds.

The threat Putcha refers to came ironically from within the same Android ecosystem Google was now seeking to defend.

IT’S NOT YOU…

Of the three Indian phone makers Google chose to release Android One devices in September, the largest was Micromax. Aggressive, innovative and fast-moving, it has repeatedly confounded sceptics by going from selling its first phone in 2008 to becoming the second largest smartphone company in India (or perhaps even the largest, depending on which analyst firm one asks) and the 10th largest in the world. According to IDC’s November 2014 estimates, Micromax lagged market leader Samsung’s share by just 4 percentage points in the overall mobile phone market and 2 percentage points in the smartphone market.

Perhaps Google thought it was co-opting Micromax by partnering it for Android One. But Micromax had realised some time ago that it had no future in being a commoditised and undifferentiated Android partner.

Thus in September, even as Pichai was launching Android One, Micromax was well over six months into a yet-undisclosed secret partnership called Project Yureka with California-headquartered Cyanogen, the makers of the modified Android variant called CyanogenMod (now called Cyanogen OS).

“In early 2014 we had realised the market was moving away from hardware specs to software and services. Samsung once had the best of screens, memory or processors, but now there was no difference between their hardware and ours. Sure, we were doing well month on month, quarter on quarter, and could’ve just kept on doing what we were doing and felt good. But after two-three years, then what?” says Rahul Sharma, Micromax’s affable and dapper co-founder.

Read the entire piece at Founding Fuel.

Listen to Rohin’s conversation with Rahul Sharma here.

Copyright © 2015 Founding Fuel. This excerpt has been crossposted with permission from Founding Fuel.