At Google I/O in May of this year, Google promised a version of Android custom-designed for low-end devices. Today, “Android Go (Oreo edition)” is being made available for device manufacturers and developers. That doesn’t mean it’s available to users yet — but presumably, that’ll happen in fairly short order.
The premise behind Android Go is pretty simple. It’s a build of Android Oreo that is designed to run better on phones with either 512MB or 1GB of RAM. By comparison, the Pixel 2 (like most flagships) has 4GB of RAM, while the iPhone X has 3GB and the Galaxy Note 8 has a whopping 6GB.
Making the same operating system work on both flagships and the cheapest of cheap phones is a challenge, but it’s one Google says it’s overcome. Go edition is not meant to be a “fork” of Android Oreo so much as a variant that a manufacturer can just set by ticking off a configuration flag.
Setting those configs does a few things. It sets the phone up to use the “Go” versions of a handful of Google apps — including the main Google app, Google Assistant, Google Maps, Gmail, and so on. Some of those apps, like YouTube Go, have special features for downloading stuff over Wi-Fi, In other cases, the “Go” versions are radically smaller than their regular variants. The smaller apps and slimmer OS can as much as halve the amount of storage that’s taken up by default on a brand new phone.
There are also “performance and storage improvements” in the Go edition of Oreo — and you’d think that you’d want that for every Android phone. But in this case, that’s not necessarily true; optimizing an app to take up less storage can also mean it takes a little longer to launch. On phones where storage is at a premium, you optimize for that. On most high-end phones, however, you’d rather get those milliseconds back.
Google is also piling on a bunch of other data-saving features turned on out of the box. So in Chrome, everything will get run through a Google server that reduces file sizes before it gets delivered to your phone. There’s also the new Datally app for tracking where you data went.
Android Go is distinct and different from Android One, by the way. Both are intended to raise the quality of low-end devices, but from different directions. One is a system where Google partners directly with the manufacturer to decide what goes on the phone and keep it up to date (sort of like the Nexus ecosystem). One used to strictly be a low-end play, but lately it’s been creeping up the price scale with the release of the Moto X4 on Project Fi in the US.
Android Go, by comparison, is a full release of Android available from the Android Open Source Project for any manufacturer to use. However, it’s pretty important to note that much (if not most) of what makes the Go edition special comes from Google’s own apps. So it’s not totally clear how much impact we’ll actually see in areas where Google’s apps aren’t available — that is to say, China.
Google tells me that, going forward, the “Go edition” of future Android releases won’t be quite so delayed compared to the full ones. For now, though, the Go edition of Oreo is available for manufacturers to start using, which should mean we’ll see it on new devices soon.
Chances are the first phones to use it will be launched in India — Google notes that it has more users there than it does in the US now, after all. Google also points out that this release comes “alongside” the release of Android 8.1, which should be available “tomorrow” (but more likely today, depending on your time zone).