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Can Nokia succeed with its Android fork?

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Nokia is reportedly forking Android. While rumors had abound about a possible Android-powered Nokia smartphone — then dubbed “Normandy” and then “Nokia X” — a recent feature on the Wall Street Journal supposedly cites credible sources who say that the Finnish company is, indeed, launching an Android device within the month at MWC. However, since Nokia will soon be acquired by Microsoft, which owns the Windows Phone platform, there is question on how the company will implement Android.

Thanks to its earlier partnership with Microsoft, Nokia is currently the top Windows Phone device maker, although that doesn’t mean much in terms of market share, with the platform only enjoying about 3.5 percent of the market globally. Nokia, however, still has a strong presence in the low-end market, with its Asha feature phone series. However, with the proliferation of inexpensive Android devices from lesser-known brands, this market position is also being challenged.

In launching an Android-powered device targeted at the entry level, Nokia has a better chance at competing against the likes of Micromax, Cherry Mobile, Xiaomi and other companies that can afford to sell cheap smartphones running Android or a fork thereof.

No Google Play

The concern here, of course, for consumers, is that the Nokia X will not run Google services. In particular, it will not include the stock apps that come with a full Android experience, such as Gmail, Maps, Google+ and the Google Play Store, among others. Instead, Nokia X will run the company’s own suite of services, such as Here, and its own application store.

This might be a deal-breaker for some, especially if accessing apps from the Play Store is essential. It will be an even bigger deal-breaker if you depend on apps that rely on the Google Play Services framework, such as Keep, Google Now and the navigation capabilities of Maps.

One reason why Nokia is likely to opt out of Google services is that running the Google Mobile Services (GMS) suite on a device will mean ceding control over to the search company. GMS is the non-open source aspect of Android devices. And it is indivisible, meaning you cannot take just one service within the framework; you have to include the whole thing. This is why custom ROM releases are not distributed with the Gapps package — they want to mitigate licensing issues.

If Nokia were to sell a device with the full Android experience, Google will be the one earning revenues from apps and in-app purchases. Google will be the one gathering user data like location, context, preferences and activity. In short, Google benefits the most out of this arrangement, leaving Nokia to becoming just another OEM or device-maker. This was actually Nokia’s position when it decided to partner with Microsoft instead of Google in the first place.

Why fork Android?

In forking the open-source part of Android — meaning running Android Open Source Project, but without GMS — Nokia will be doing what Amazon has done with its Kindle Fire line. The Kindle Fire (including the HD and HDX) devices run a forked version of Android, meaning the underpinnings are Android (currently based on either Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean), but the services framework are Amazon’s. Hence, the Kindle Fire cannot run Google Play. It can still run some individual apps like Gmail, however — with limited support. And it can install Android apps through side-loading.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire series has met with success, so far. In fact, the Kinde Fire outsells other Android tablets in the market, and its market share is growing. Now Amazon sells the device at a loss, but it is able to recoup its investment from its sales of apps via the Amazon Appstore, as well as books and other content. Amazon already has a proven business model in its book and merchandise distribution, and so the Kindle Fire is just the medium through which users consume (and pay for) this content. The demand is also a given, as Amazon is currently the go-to company for e-books and such.

Now for Nokia to succeed in its Android fork, it will need to become the Amazon of the smartphone world. A number of smartphone makers that use AOSP run their own application marketplaces. Take Xiaomi, for instance. Even Jolla, which runs its own Sailfish OS, has partnered with Yandex for Android app distribution.

Nokia should be like Amazon

The question here is whether Nokia can reach scale to garner enough influence among consumers and developers. Amazon is big and influential enough that app developers would want to include their free, freemium and premium apps on the Amazon Appstore. This means Nokia — and Microsoft — can likewise earn cuts from paid and ad revenues from these apps, turning Android into a viable revenue earner for the company (apart from its licensing deals with Android device makers, of course).

Can Nokia succeed with Android? In the low end, an Android-powered device priced just right is likely to be well-received. But what would even be better is if Nokia would do what Amazon has done with the Kindle Fire: sell cheap, but well-designed and sturdy hardware, and run a great app and content ecosystem with it.

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