Does Nokia X mark a new chapter for Microsoft?

By Peter Gothard
03 Mar 2014 View Comments
Nokia X Android smartphone

With an interface “inspired” by Nokia’s Windows-based Lumia phones, Nokia X’s Android build is so forked that Android apps are only downloadable through the Nokia Store, rather than from their normal home, Google Play. The devices also come at a snip, with the Nokia X core model costing under £100.

Nokia was widely supposed to be the natural home of Windows Phone, after the software giant acquired the Finnish firm’s mobile business. But Microsoft apparently knew, when it bought the business, that its mobile OS would have company within the Nokia family as a result of the Nokia X project, which started about three years ago.

Further reading

Since the range’s launch at last month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, various tech bloggers have speculated that Microsoft will soon want to “kill” the Nokia X after having unselfishly allowed the devices to be released.

But would Microsoft actually want to do that?  And again, when did the company ever say it would absolutely refuse to embrace a more popular platform than its own to host a portfolio of applications and services it could conceivably begin to easily monetise on Android? The answer is: never.

It was only earlier in February that co-founder of Apple and general press agitator Steve Wozniak informed his old company that “nothing would keep Apple out of the Android market as a secondary phone market”. Obviously, brands being built and hyped as they are, Wozniak was branded a “complete arsehole” by one potty-mouthed Apple zealot who was no doubt speaking for many like-minded fanatics, and accused of possessing “a zero-sum mentality” by a more measured commenter.

But, again, didn’t Wozniak have a point? A recent Computing story reported how migration to Android from Apple is beginning to outweigh that heading in the opposite direction. If users aren’t falling for a “walled garden” as rife with content as Apple’s, then they’re never going to pledge undying devotion to Windows Phone, which is still, in many cases, months away from picking up functioning versions of apps the rest of us have been taking for granted for years. BlackBerry 10 also contains APIs for direct Android compatibility. It’s tricky to pull off right now, but the intention is there.

The X series is, in the words of ex-Nokia CEO and future head of Microsoft’s Devices and Studios division, Stephen Elop, aimed at “growth economies”, where Android devices are already hugely popular. Indeed, 89 per cent of phones across the globe use Android, so it’s not hard to see a business case for being compatible with that space.

That business case can be made even stronger when you consider that  Microsoft, as a self-confessed “software and services” company with a new CEO, Satya Nadella, who comes from the world of the cloud, could harness Android to  to sell such products as Office, Azure, Skydrive, and perhaps even extensions to its Xbox One gaming platform, to a new audience, while continuing to build up Windows Phone in the background on more premium devices.

It just doesn’t add up that Nokia has slipped Nokia X out the door against Microsoft’s wishes. While it’s true enough to say that – with the acquisition not yet finalised – Nokia can more or less do what it likes for now, it seems rather unlikely for Nokia to risk getting off on the wrong foot in such spectacular fashion with its new bosses.

It seems far more likely that Microsoft is starting to recognise that it may have to rip up the old Redmond playbook and take some surprising steps in order to prosper in the face of plummeting desktop sales – its traditional cash cow.

At the same time, Microsoft has been in the applications business longer than most; people may buy Windows more or less because they have to, but they gladly adopt the likes of Skype, Office 365, SharePoint and the Office suite in general because they want them. Nokia X’s default search engine is also Bing. Go figure.

And with Nokia having admitted since the announcement of the Nokia X that more devices are on the way – again citing emerging markets beyond Microsoft’s usual audience as the motivation – it seems that, even if Microsoft hasn’t decided yet to directly capitalise on Nokia X, the devices will be sticking around for a while. Surely, in this scenario, it makes more sense for Microsoft to exploit the X than waste energy plotting its demise.

@PeterGothard

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