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Business  24, Feb 2014

Nokia X is official: Is Android ‘Plan B’ for Nokia and Microsoft?

Nokia has formally launched its latest Nokia X smartphone series, which runs a forked version of Android

In the weeks leading up to the Mobile World Congress that just kicked off in Barcelona today, Nokia had been rumored to have an Android device in the works. Code-named ‘Normandy’, the device was supposedly a mid-range four-incher that ran a Nokia- and Microsoft services layer atop Android Open Source Project (AOSP). Today, Nokia officially unveiled its Nokia X series, which includes three mid-range smartphones that start at a sub-100 euro price.

The Nokia X is the base model, which comes with a dual-core 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 4-inch capacitive touchscreen, 4 GB storage (expandable with microSD) and 512MB of RAM, and will retail for EUR 89 (US$122). The X+ comes with more memory and will retail for EUR 99 (US$136). The XL model will come with a bigger, five-inch screen, and will retail for EUR109 (US$150). A feature popular among entry-level devices in the emerging markets, the Nokia X series will come with dual-SIM support.

The Nokia X series is expected to be a class above Nokia’s Asha series, which runs the latest version of the company’s Symbian Series 40 platform. Meanwhile, it will also be a “feeder” for the more premium Lumia line, which runs Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

Android fork

The interesting twist in Nokia’s use of Android comes with its services layer. In essence, a “true” Android phone comes with two parts. First is AOSP, which is the open-source Unix-like operating system that actually runs the device. Second is the Google Mobile Services (GMS) framework, which is the collection of Google’s APIs and services. These include the Google Play Services framework, upon which apps like Google Maps, Gmail, the Play Store and other Google services rely.

Google actually requires devices to be licensed for the GMS framework, and running GMS is an indivisible setup, meaning Nokia cannot cherry-pick from among services if it decides to run GMS. This means ceding control of monetisation and content to Google.

With the Nokia X, the Finnish company has chosen to apply its own API and services framework atop AOSP, which means it will have full control over the device and its ecosystem. This is similar to how Amazon forked Android with its Kindle Fire series. Nokia X will not ship with the Google Play Store. Instead, it will come with Nokia’s own app store, where the company will curate “hundreds of thousands” of apps, and the device will also support side-loading of apps via APK. Nokia says 75 per cent of Android apps will run out of the box — those that do not specifically rely on the GMS framework. This means Nokia will have control over revenue shares, app approval, advertising, and the like.

Additionally, the user interface is decidedly Windows-like. Eschewing the usual icon- and widget-filled home screen of the typical Android device, Nokia X comes in a Metro-like tiled interface, which Windows Phone users will be familiar with. Nokia is certainly treating the X as its “feeder” device toward more premium Windows Phone smartphones, and perhaps an upcoming Windows-based tablet as well.

According to Neil Broadley, Marketing Director, Nokia mobile services division, the product line “acts as the perfect feeder to our Lumia high-end smartphone family, which is very much our premium and our flagship family.”

Is this ‘Plan B’ for Nokia and Microsoft?

Interestingly enough, this launch comes as Microsoft and Nokia are working out specifics of the the Redmond, WA firm’s acquisition of Nokia’s mobile phone division, which is expected to be completed this year. Since 2011, Nokia has been Microsoft’s primary partner in distributing Windows Phone, after Nokia switched from its own Symbian (and the Symbian-based Meego) platform, which was then on the decline. During that time, Nokia opted to switch to Windows Phone with its Lumia series, instead of Android, as the company was worried about Samsung dominating Google’s mobile OS.

Given this, there are questions regarding the sudden adoption of Android, which could signal a change in Nokia’s strategy. The question here is whether Nokia initiated the Android fork independently of Microsoft, and whether the company has Microsoft’s blessing, which will be important once the acquisition is complete.

Broadley says that Microsoft will still be front-and-center in this arrangement, and Android is simply the platform on which the new product will be built on. With Nokia X, “you’re going to be using your Microsoft cloud identity, your Microsoft login”, he said, adding that these include services such as Skype, OneDrive, Outlook and the HERE navigation service. In essence, Nokia has replaced all things Google with Microsoft’s own services.

In fact, Nokia X replaces three of Google’s core APIs, namely the location API (e.g., HERE instead of Google Maps), the in-app purchases API (e.g., Nokia’s own Android app store instead of Google Play) and the notifications API.

Has Android won the platform wars?

BlackBerry has earlier announced support for Android apps with its latest BB10 platform. In fact, while BlackBerry earlier supported Android apps through APK-to-BAR conversion, BlackBerry OS now supports direct installation of Android apps via .APK, giving BlackBerry users access to hundreds of thousands of Android apps. In BlackBerry OS 10.2.1, which powers the BlackBerry Z3, was actually found to run a stripped-down version of Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean.

Other platform makers have also started supporting Android apps, such as Jolla’s Sailfish OS, and Samsung’s Tizen. Meanwhile, other phone makers have created their own fork of Android, such as Xiaomi, with its MIUI and Baidu with its Yi, among others. With Nokia X, however, Nokia and Microsoft are likely to take advantage of the popularity of the Android app platform, in bundling its own Microsoft services and frameworks in a low-priced device.

Nokia X will be targeted at emerging markets, particularly in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe, as well as a global release. The device will not get an official release in the US, Japan, South Korea and Western European countries.

Featured Image Courtesy: The Verge

J. Angelo Racoma

J. Angelo Racoma

A technology and automotive journalist with an interest in emerging standards, J. Angelo Racoma has written extensively about mobile, social media, enterprise apps and startups. Angelo has been active in online media since the early blogging and social networking days, and is co-founder at WorkSmartr, a small outsourcing platform for freelancers.

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