The Nokia X

It’s real, and the Verge had a hands on:

As expected, [the Nokia X, X+ and XL] combine Lumia-style design with low-cost hardware aimed at the masses, from a large 5-inch screen on the 109-Euro XL to the 4-inch display on the 99-Euro X+. The X will be released for just €89 in Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, and a few other global locations, but it won’t be making its way to North America, Japan, Korea, or Western European countries. These aren’t competitors to Samsung’s Galaxy S4 or Apple’s iPhone 5S, and there are certainly no surprising hardware additions like a 41-megapixel camera or a giant 6-inch display. Instead, the standout feature of the Nokia X lineup is the software that powers it: Android.

During the presentation, Stephen Elop – still at Nokia! – was very explicit that the ability to run Android apps would be a selling point. From the keynote:

Ladies and Gentleman, the new Nokia X and X+. Both of them run Android applications, they include unique Nokia experiences, and they include a wide array of popular Microsoft services…The Nokia X and X+ are built on the Android Open Source Project software which means people have access to hundreds of thousands of applications right out of the box. People can access free applications from the Nokia store, but as well you can access applications from other application stores. People can sideload applications using an SD card with our file manager…

The Nokia X takes people to Microsoft’s cloud, not to Google’s cloud. This was very deliberate, because the Nokia X family, with this Microsoft will be able to reach people it has never talked to before around the world.

ReadWriteWeb has a useful overview of the app situation: The vast majority of apps that don’t use location or notification services will run as-is. Developers need only upload the applications to the Nokia store, or have them already listed in alternate Android stores like Yandex or GetJar. For the rest, Nokia is providing drop-in replacements for payments, location, and notifications, and says it takes less than a day to have an app ready for their store

Of course, the app situation isn’t as good as it could be: were Nokia a standalone company, their best shot would be to use the Google Android experience with the full Play store, something I argued they should have done many years ago. But Nokia, soon at least, won’t be a standalone company; they will be a part of Microsoft, and if that means Google isn’t an option, then this is clearly the best alternative. There’s little question the Nokia X is in a much better position than Nokia’s ostensible top-of-the-line Lumias when it comes to apps.

In fact, that’s the biggest hole in the Nokia X’s reason-for-being: it’s supposed to be an entry-level device that will help move people up to Lumias, but if said move requires losing half your apps, in what direction are you moving? It is the Lumias that should be adopting the exact same OS, with the exact same app strategy.

Think about it: in the big picture, what is the point of having a Microsoft-built OS? If the goal is to make money, as Steve Ballmer so often stated it was, then the only future for Microsoft on mobile is services, not cut-rate devices. And, if both AOSP and Windows Phone can provide access to those services, why not use the platform that is orders of magnitude easier for developers to support?

Microsoft is so far behind in mobile that they simply cannot afford to fight battles that, in the big picture, don’t matter. And, for a services company, an OS battle is exactly that.

Some additional notes:

  • Even if it’s trivially easy for Android developers to support the Nokia X, why should they when it’s not clear whether or not it will survive the year? Microsoft may not be able to comment now, but they need to clarify their position as soon as possible.
  • The above point – that Microsoft can’t afford to fight the OS battle – applies even more strongly to Internet Explorer. Just as the web made the Mac viable, Microsoft ought to pray the mobile web makes their devices more viable as well. They can help by adopting WebKit, ensuring every site works perfectly on all their devices. And, to be honest, Apple could probably use the help.
  • It’s too bad this is only being released on such low-end devices. If the Nokia X fails, the cause of failure will be less clear than it might have been.