Nokia X: The illegitimate lovechild of AOSP and MS Services


So Nokia finally released the Nokia X series of Android phones, and at MWC no less. First up I have to own up that Ben Thompson was right about Nokia’s Android intentions, and I was wrong. Though I still believe the deal does make sense from MS’ perspective. Without Lumia brand WP is dead in the water. Whether MS should abandon Windows Phone is different topic (and if you must ask, I would say NO).

After my initial indignation was over I have come to conclusion that X is pretty much the lever that Nokia used to sell its Windows Phone business to Microsoft. If we trace the timeline of when Nokia may have started working on X (Android Jellybean code base), we’ll see that having jumped off the burning platform Nokia found itself entangled in the Windows Phone parachute and the rescue boats (WP updates) were taking way too long to come by for it to stay afloat. It thus started project X as a life boat (I speculate it was a code name to start with, fact that it is still called the same shows the bastardized nature of the project, they didn’t bother with a marketing name) till the end. But building a lifeboat when you are in water already seems rather stupid and yet we have Nokia X series now 😐.

Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is the publicly available kernel + services that form the core of Android OS. This is free and Nokia X builds on top of it. Most Android devices however bundle GMS or Google Mobile Services that device manufacturers have to pay to use and get permission from Google. You can read up why GMS is the heart of Android ecosystem in Peter Bright’s write up at ARS Technica.

Why launch it after it has served its purpose?

This was the question that made me most angry. I am fine with the lever, everyone does it (Motorola had threatened to sue other Android OEMs on patent issues before Google bought it for a whopping load of money). Only a few reasons come to mind so my rant begins here:

A desperate stab at leveraging the success of Android

Given that they had spent considerable effort with the phone before MS began acquisition negotiations, Nokia was desperate to achieve success on its own in a vain attempt to prove (to itself?) that it still had the chops for runaway hits. This seems a little childish and vain to me and launching it at MWC seems a little over the top, there has to be a better reason. But then, spare a thought for the team working on the project. For them release is a kind of closure. As a dev I certainly understand that.

Also the Symbian based Pureview launch happened after the WP deal was struck, probably because the project was initiated earlier and had to reach a closure. Though I see the point of the hardware (41MP camera) release and its subsequent adoption into 1020, but I see no such path for project X.

Kick Microsoft in the balls to get ‘Engineering brownie points’ post-merger

Microsoft has dug itself into a hole with the separate paths for Windows RT and Windows Phone 8. While it is still plugging away at Windows Phone 8.1, Nokia took project X to completion to show off its engineering prowess that might come in handy post-merger when there will be two system engineering teams who between them have developed at least a dozen OSes. That would explain the old Android code base, as in, once the project was released, it would have served its purpose. But the confidence of building a complete ecosystem experience would have stayed on.

Clean slate reboot and future ambitions

Nokia may not have the Asha and Lumia names post-merger, but remember Vertu, high end Nokia phones that went Android? Project X could be easily re-released as a new line sans Nokia/Lumia/Asha brand name. This would add to reasons for the high profile launch which could be leveraged later. The X+ and XL models hint at these ambitions.

Whatever their reason it was a tacit acknowledgement of a few telling things:

  1. MS’ Windows Phone adventure is horribly off track.
  2. MS’ WP ecosystem is ‘different’ enough to put it in ‘good to have’ category and not consider it for launch of a new Application/Service/Startup. In other words, might as well have Android sans Google Mobile Services so that one can coax devs into recompiling (against MS services), instead of hoping that dev will eventually build a WP version. Can’t fault Nokia for feeling that way, given the hard time Instagram gave it before launching a half assed WP version of their app.
  3. MS’ WP developer ecosystem is not growing as expected. This is tied to number 2 above. WP is a third choice at best for app developers. The dedicated hoard of WP dev are jaded from the WP7 to WP8 experience where they had to nearly do everything from scratch. There is a healthy dose of skepticism around what WP 8.1 will bring amongst outsiders like me. However 8.1 technically is MS’ third major WP release and MS is ‘famous’ for getting it right the third time (at a minimum). So there are high hopes.

Microsoft supported outside attempt to gain quick traction in name of Android

This is the scariest of all thoughts. If this was paid for by MS then it shows a serious lack of commitment or confusion or both on MS’ part with respect to their own WP platform. If that happens to be the case, MS is in way bigger trouble than it cares to think about and will definitely face Dev community revolt when this happens. I am scared to think or write about it anymore.

It is not meant to be a vehicle for MS services.

Unlike what’s claimed by many, project X isn’t meant to bring hordes of users to Microsoft services. Given that Lumia low end platform performs better than X based devices, why would anyone buy this Frankenstein device? Why not just buy into MS ecosystem directly? People who buy Android make a conscious choice most of the time. Ignore the knowledge and ability of your customers at your own peril. A dual SIM option doesn’t automatically open doors for a half assed device experience. If anything, Android’s association with Google is well known enough and not having Google will be a constant source of negative word-of-the mouth publicity.

The services part was probably the last piece that Nokia attempted and MS services served two purposes,

  1. Placate MS, who I am sure is hopping mad at the release inspite of putting forth a brave face at the moment
  2. MS services provide a near perfect feature replacement for Google services and were easy to integrate rather than build from scratch.

Future of Windows Phone?

Initially I felt this marked the beginning of the end for Windows phone OS. If MS keeps this project alive this will be true. However, I now see WP moving to a respectable third position by solidly replacing BlackBerry. In other words WP is set to become the Linux of the desktop world. Meaning that it will be a solid, dependable platform restricted to a niche user base of enthusiasts and business users most of whom carry two phones, the other one being an Android or iPhone.

Android meanwhile is equivalent to Windows of the desktop world. It has reached a level of ubiquity in terms of a mobile platform. However, the name itself is supposed to sell the device is a rather naïve thought process given that there is going to be a boatload of competition offering the ‘real’ Android as opposed to AOSP based device. So end users when faced with the choice are likely to opt for the ‘real’ thing. (Treating your users as a bunch of n00bs is a bad idea). Microsoft has every reason to kill project X post-merger, and I hope it does and at the same time I hope it also addresses the concerns that led to project X in the first place.

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