How Nokia’s Android X phones could backfire

March 5, 2014
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It has taken a long time to come, but Nokia finally unveiled a new range of Android smartphones at MWC in Barcelona. The Nokia X, X+, and XL are entry-level smartphones designed to act as “feeder” devices. Nokia CEO Elop imagines them to be like a gateway drug that will hook you into Microsoft’s ecosystem, encouraging you to try the harder stuff, in the shape of Windows Phone, if you want a bigger buzz.

We think this strategy has a few flaws in it. The sight of Android smartphones from Nokia is a welcome one, but the X phone experiment could be a massive fail for Nokia and its master Microsoft.

What’s the deal?

Nokia took the AOSP (Android Open Source Project) code and built its own UX on top. It looks like Windows Phone’s ugly sister. In place of Google apps and services, we find Nokia’s Here Maps and MixRadio, along with Microsoft’s Outlook.com, Skype, and OneDrive.

New apps are available from Nokia’s Android app store, instead of the Play Store. Some existing Android apps apparently require limited changes to be ported across, but on its developer site Nokia estimates that 75% of Android apps will run without modification, so developers just need to publish them in the Nokia Store.

The X factor

It may not work out precisely as planned, but there are definitely some smart things about this move. There’s no doubt Microsoft lacks a decent presence at the budget end of the market. We discussed that recently when we asked, what if Microsoft made Android smartphones?

Nokia is the best manufacturer in the world when it comes to creating really cheap phones. Before the X phone unveil, the company showed off its latest Asha releases. The 230 is an entry-level smartphone with a touchscreen, cloud services, streaming MixRadio for music, and all the basics you’d expect and it costs just $62.

The basic Nokia X is $120, the X+ is $140, and the XL is $150. You always get a solid build quality with Nokia and these prices are really competitive. Having said that, the specs are really basic and you’d be much better served opting for a Moto G if you could extend your budget to $180.

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Best case scenario

We can safely assume that some people will go for something in the Nokia X line-up. Despite how easy it is to sideload and root, most people don’t want to. A decent proportion of buyers will use the phones as they come out of the box. That means that they’ll get used to a Windows Phone style interface and, more importantly, that they’ll start investing in Microsoft’s cloud and services. There’s a potential hook there that might pull them towards Windows Phone when upgrade time rolls around.

Nokia’s argument is that the best way to get an upgraded experience from the Nokia X line will be to pick up a Lumia running Windows Phone. It’s a slicker, faster version of the same UX and you can easily access your purchased content, backed up photos, and everything else from Microsoft’s cloud services.

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Wait just a minute

There are several problems with Nokia’s idea.

First of all, why wouldn’t you choose an Android smartphone when it comes time to upgrade? Most of Microsoft’s apps are already available on the Android platform and Nokia’s X experiment means that all their apps will be too. It swings both ways, if it’s easy to use Android apps on Nokia X phones then it’s easy to port Nokia apps the other way. That means there’s even less that’s exclusive to the Windows Phone ecosystem. Even if you’re invested in Microsoft and Nokia services, you won’t have to use Windows Phone to enjoy them.

This raises another obvious problem. The Nokia X line helps to highlight how many Android apps and games are still not available for Windows Phone. If you get used to using any of them on your Nokia X, what happens when you look at switching to Windows Phone and learn that you’ll have to leave them behind? Maybe you reconsider and opt for a better Android smartphone instead.

All this before you explore the possibilities of sideloading and rooting to strip Nokia and Microsoft off your X phone and replace them with Google services, which is going to be relatively easy to do. Nokia is now serving Google by producing decent, incredibly cheap hardware that can be used as an unadulterated Google Android phone.

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Between a rock and hard place

There’s a weird conundrum at the heart of all this. Nokia, or more accurately Microsoft, needs the X phones to be noticeably worse than Windows Phone devices. Anyone wishing Nokia would unleash its high-end hardware know-how on Android is not going to be satisfied by the X phones.

Nokia is going to have to keep its Android line at budget prices, in a market segment where the Lumia line does not compete.

It’s also going to have to make sure that the X phones don’t outshine the Lumia phones, which may account for the lack of polish in the user interface. Nokia’s X phones are running a dated version of Android on low-end hardware and consequently they are laggy.  If they were running 4.4, which is deliberately optimized for low-end hardware, there’s little doubt the experience would be snappier and more impressive.

If consumers buy an X phone and the experience is bad then it’s more likely they’ll be turned off Nokia for good. If you’re unhappy with your phone, you don’t think “I know… I’ll buy a more expensive phone from this company”. You’re more likely to think “I’ll try a different manufacturer.”

It’s more than 18 months since we discussed how Android could save Nokia. The X phones look like much too little, and far too late. We think it’s a gamble that won’t pay off, but it does allow Microsoft to gather some data and test the waters without being seen to make a move itself, and it will be easy to quietly pack away if its decided that the experiment is doing more harm than good.

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