The Nokia X Android fork… smart move or dead-end?

Nokia X

Nokia X

Unexpected? Probably not. This was one of the worst-kept secrets in mobile. Speculation that Nokia would ship an Android phone has been swirling for at least a year. And that makes sense. Any serious move to ship Android devices would’ve had to start about 18-24 months ago, way before Microsoft had conjured up a deal to buy Nokia (or, more correctly, way before Nokia was about to run out of cash and hit the wall).

Of course, there’s now confusion about what Microsoft will do – will it kill Nokia X? How could it let Nokia ship an Android device! But the deal isn’t closed yet – these things take months. Nokia is still operating independently and Nokia X is the result of unstoppable momentum internally. And even if the deal had closed, would Microsoft kill 18 months of work (design, manufacturing supply chain, marketing, agreements with operators)? Probably not.

But, this doesn’t make the future of Nokia X any less murky.

As analyst Benedict Evans (now with Andreessen Horowitz) points out, “tactically, this move by Nokia makes sense. But the strategy is a puzzle.”

With Android, Nokia is able to extend its Lumia-type smartphones into the realm of Asha. You get the sense that the S40 platform used for Asha has hit a wall. Nokia’s stuck. It can’t drive Windows Phone down the product line – the Lumia 520 is evidence of that (it is Nokia’s best-seller but it’s being sold at razor-thin margins, sometimes at a loss). So the 520 is as far down as it can go with WP. If Nokia had a blank sheet of paper, I’m not sure they’d even go as far down as that.

Nokia X also allows Nokia to plug a massive hole in its app catalogue. It’s a relatively trivial process for Android developers to compile their apps for the X platform. Plus, the quality of the apps will immediately be better than many of the Windows Phone apps which Microsoft has been forced to develop in-house (and those awful mobile website wrappers disguised as apps).

So, already the X platform looks better than its efforts with Lumia.

But here’s where it starts unravelling.

With Nokia X, Nokia is trying to be half-pregnant. It’s trying to have the best of both worlds, with a few giant gaps in, not only its strategy, but the consumer experience too.

Want Gmail on Nokia X? Can’t get it. YouTube? Ditto. The absence of Google services is something consumers will notice (and yes, there’s a hack to allow Nokia X to run Google service).

The other problem… Any consumer moving up the Nokia line (ie. from X to Lumia) would be forgiven for thinking that they’re moving to another planet. You cannot easily move up to the Lumia platform without losing all your installed and purchased apps on X.

Beyond that, what of the apps available on X (and Android) that simply aren’t available on Windows Phone? Is moving to Lumia an upgrade?

Perhaps with this X experiment, we’ll have a glimpse of what Nokia should’ve done when Stephen Elop penned his famous burning platform memo in 2011. By doubling down on Android, Nokia would probably still be the largest phone-maker in the world. Samsung would likely not be the behemoth it has become.

There’s one known unknown: Microsoft is going to be at sixes and sevens trying to figure out what to do with the X experiment. And with Nokia.

And that answer is clear as mud.

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