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Open Letter to BlackBerry and Nokia: Android can be forked, why didn’t you just fork it?

Image source: BlackBerry
Image source: BlackBerry

Android is an open source project. It can be forked and be made the basis of a different operating system. BlackBerry and Nokia probably should have taken this route. Android’s open source nature would have allowed BlackBerry and Nokia to come out with its own distinct operating system, without the burden of having to come out with a strong app ecosystem. Amazon successfully forked Android for its Kindle Fire tablets. In doing so, it had the advantage of a tried and tested operating system and was able to put up its own app store.

BlackBerry and Nokia should have probably gone down this route. BlackBerry pretty much raised the white flag with its recent announcement that it was looking for strategic alternatives.  In one sense, this is nothing new. BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins has consistently said that he is open to all options. So the announcement is really nothing new in one sense. In another sense, by putting a public for sale sign on BlackBerry, this indicates that there are no “strategic alternative” options on the table right now. If there were, this kind of thing is usually discussed and negotiated publicly.

What is the likely impetus for the announcement? Many would point at poorer than expected sales. The reality is that the problem is more deep rooted. BlackBerry 10 needs 2 gigabytes of RAM, and efforts to get it to run on less hardware has failed.  This means that BlackBerry won’t be able to offer a nice upgrade path for its legions of Curve owners.

Now, I have been using a BlackBerry handset for a month now, a Z10. BlackBerry has done a nice thing with the new BlackBerry 10 user interface. I think the gesture-based interface is great. BlackBerry did an excellent job with how multitasking is handled, built a great web browser and an excellent keyboard. The BlackBerry Hub, is something some Android manufacturer or app developer should emulate. But I really do not see why all this could not have been built on top of Android instead.

Had BlackBerry done this, it could have had focused on making its versions of Android more secure, and place its own proprietary apps, adding value to its phones, while expanding its services like BBM and security software to the rather large lucrative Android ecosystem.

Nokia went the Windows Phone route. While Microsoft is happy brandishing the fact that it now has taken third place from BlackBerry in the mobile operating system wars, Nokia is footing this bill. Nokia lost US$151 million in the previous quarter despite the gains made by Windows Phone. The reason– the impetus behind the small growth in Windows Phone is driven by low cost devices like the Nokia Lumia 520. While Nokia’s Lumia smartphone shipments went from 5.6 million to 7.4 million from the first to the second quarter of this year, its average selling price per smartphone went down. In Q1 of 2013, Nokia shipped 5.6 million Lumia smartphones with an average selling price of US$250 per phone. In Q2 of the year, Nokia shipped 7.4 million Lumia smartphones with an average selling price of just US$206 per phone. Worse, it is limited to using Qualcomm Krait processors in its handsets, even low cost one, limiting its ability to source lower cost components.

Nokia really cannot do anything about this. Since it has chosen the Windows Phone for its platform, its devices cannot support Full HD displays and quad core processors, so its best devices are essentially mid-range Android devices. To its credit, Nokia has focused on camera technology to try to make its top offerings competitive with Android and the iPhone.

If Nokia was not inclined to just be another Android manufacturer, it could have forked Android instead, building its own features, and placing its own apps on top of it and brought its Symbian and Meego expertise to bear in creating a better version of Android. It could also be building more competitive handsets. Now, it has to sit back and wait to see if Microsoft can come out with an operating system which will make its offering more competitive.

BlackBerry and Nokia could have become major partners for Google, bringing their operating system expertise to enriching the Android operating system. Instead, BlackBerry is likely to leave the hardware business, while Nokia has placed its future in the hands of another company. As for Google’s partners, if Google ever drops Android, Samsung would happily take on the project and pick up where Google left off.