Microsoft Android

A month ago Nokia announced its Nokia X product line which runs Android as its operating system. This is an interesting development because nobody expected Nokia to turn to Android — especially not now, when it’s about to be taken over by Microsoft after gambling (and losing) its independent existence on Windows Phone.

I have a theory about the Nokia X that I’d like to share with you. It may be nonsense, but it fits the currently available facts and makes sense, so it could be true.

The most important question is: once Microsoft takes over Nokia in April, will they quash the X line or allow it to proceed? Tomi Ahonen feels that Microsoft will end it as soon as possible, but Horace Dediu disagrees and thinks that Microsoft is fine with the X line. I think Horace is right here, and Tomi is wrong.

Browsers

Before delving into this question, let’s discuss a few facts. Being what I am, my first question on hearing about the X line was “Which browser will it run?” Max Firtman was kind enough to answer that question: it turns out to be Chromium-based, but not actually Chrome.

Right now, the default browser, called “Nokia Browser 1.0” (don’t get me started on Nokia browser names!), lacks quite a few UI items, such as bookmark capability. Max also said that the first version will have Opera installed next to this Nokia default browser.

My theory: Nokia wants to build its own Chromium-based browser, but it’s not going to be ready in time for the X launch. Thus X will run Chromium-based Opera as the default browser for a while so that people won’t have to re-code their pages (extensively) once it is replaced by Nokia Chromium.

Services

But why not just use Chrome as the default browser? As far as I can see that’s because Nokia doesn’t want the entire Google suite of applications on their phones — and using this suite is a requirement for being allowed to use Chrome.

So Nokia is not planning to use Google apps (and services), and that requires them to build their own browser. It also requires them to use their own maps, but Nokia Maps are a perfectly fine substitute. IM? Well, Nokia doesn’t have anything, but Microsoft does. And if not, there’s always BBM or other services. Search? Bing.

(Interlude: three years ago, who would have thought we could run a BlackBerry service on an Android phone created by Microsoft-owned Nokia?)

App store? Nokia is being very clear that existing Android apps can be ported to X, so I’m assuming app developers can just submit them to the Nokia store and be done. How easy will that be? Knowing Nokia there will be a few bureaucratic wrinkles here and there, but I’m assuming Nokia sees the paramount importance of app sharing and won’t get in the way too much.

In other words, Nokia, aided by Microsoft, has a substitute for the most important Google apps and services. Thus they can afford to ignore the Google suite and build their own.

Nokia is aiming to create its own Android branch; not at OS level but at service level.

Microsoft’s perspective

What’s Microsoft’s take on all this?

The X line does not run Windows Phone, and even one year ago that would have been a reason to pull the plug. But Steve Ballmer has just been replaced by Satya Nadella, who is supposed to reposition Microsoft as a device & services company.

Services, eh? Sounds about right.

Windows Phone is not going to be able to spread Microsoft services, because there’s just too few of them in consumers’ pockets. Also, so far Microsoft failed to create a cheap Windows Phone for the (increasingly inaccurately named) feature phone market. I just bought a Lumia 520 for €159, which is a lot less than any previous Lumia, but still too much for emerging middle class consumers in developing countries.

Compare that to the €89 the cheapest X is going to cost, and it’s becoming clear what Microsoft’s interest is: spreading Microsoft (and Nokia) services to the bottom-to-mid-range of the market.

And now for the real jackpot: suppose other Android vendors switch from Google to Nokisoft services? If Microsoft makes that easy and cheap ... hey, why not? At the very least they’ll have a choice — which weakens Google’s position.

If things go really well, Microsoft gets a fat finger in the Android pie, and since Android has “won” the OS wars of the last few years, that finger may be worth more than the entire Windows Phone ecosystem. Besides, any Android share Microsoft picks up will be Google’s loss — and that’s likely to sit well in Redmond, too.

True, this may cost Windows Phone some, but by now it’s clear Windows Phone is not going to break the 10% (or even 5%) market share barrier, and besides the X line is aimed at another target audience. So Windows Phone may even survive (though not thrive — but it wasn’t going to anyway).

Conclusion

Nokia is working on a separate branch of Android for the lower half of the market, with services, and not OS, being the prime differentiator.

Microsoft will hitch a ride in order to get its services out into a mass market they can’t reach with Windows Phone, and to take away parts of the Android services market from Google.

That’s why I believe Microsoft is perfectly happy with the Nokia X line, and will do everything in its power to support it.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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