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Google and Jio Unveil Budget Phone for Booming India Market

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(Bloomberg) -- Billionaire Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries Ltd. unveiled the much-awaited JioPhone Next co-developed with Alphabet Inc.’s Google, a handset designed to target India’s hundreds of millions of first-time smartphone users.“An ultra-affordable 4G smartphone is essential,” Ambani told shareholders at Reliance’s annual general meeting on Thursday, outlining the capabilities of the device that will run a re-engineered version of the Android operating system. Alphabet Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai joined remotely to say that the JioPhone was “built for India” and would deliver translation features, a voice assistant and a great camera.

Neither company leader disclosed a price for the handset, which will debut in the market on Sept. 10, ahead of the country’s peak shopping and gifting season. Both indicated plans to achieve a breakthrough price.

Jio is India’s leading telecom operator with over 423 million users of voice and data services. The new 4G-capable device will try to entice users of basic phones, those “trapped in the 2G era,” in Ambani’s words, to make the transition to more advanced hardware. For Google, it marks another effort toward making Android friendlier to more frugal devices and thus accessible to a wider audience of potential users of its services.

Google Cloud technologies will form the basis for Jio’s upcoming 5G wireless solutions as well as serving the internal needs of online services such as Reliance Retail and JioMart, Ambani said.

Read more: Google, Jio to Build Cheap Phones in $4.5 Billion India Alliance

Engineers from the two companies worked for more than nine months to co-develop the JioNext hardware specifications in sync with a modified version of Android that would maintain a high-end experience without recourse to expensive components. The launch comes nearly a year after Google agreed to buy a $4.5 billion stake in Jio Platforms Ltd., the digital arm of Reliance Industries.

Global tech leaders like Google and Facebook Inc. have jumped on the Reliance bandwagon as they look for ways to grab a slice of the Indian market where an estimated 300 million first-time smartphone users are expected to start accessing the internet by 2025, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India.

Asia’s richest man, pursuing his own large-scale project of turning an oil-and-petrochemicals giant into a homegrown tech leader, presented the new device even as the plans to sell hundreds of millions of the Google-powered smartphone faced supply chain headwinds.

Read more: Google Smartphone Tie-Up With Ambani Hits Supply Chain Snag

Standing in the way of the Google-Jio alliance will be China’s fast-rising coterie of leading smartphone makers. Xiaomi Corp., Oppo, Vivo and OnePlus have already established their brands, credentials and some manufacturing facilities in India, with their domestic approach of high specs at low prices resonating well with the Indian consumer.

(Updates with additional details of partnership from second paragraph)

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