Normandy: Will the Android-powered Nokia phone ever see the light of day?

Nokia Normandy

Nokia is reportedly developing a low-end device that runs a fork of Android, called Normandy. What could be the implications of this, given the company’s commitment to Windows Phone and the ongoing acquisition by Microsoft?

Among manufacturers that build smartphones running the Windows Phone platform, Nokia is perhaps the most committed. The Finnish company actually abandoned its long-standing development of Symbian and the then-upcoming MeeGo and jumped to the Windows Phone platform. During that time, newly-appointed CEO Stephen Elop issued the now-famous “burning platform” memo, saying the switch is a bitter pill that Nokia had to swallow in order to ensure long-term sustainability of its mobile business.

Nearly three years after and still with no significant dent in market share, Nokia and Windows Phone are now lagging behind the market leaders Android and iOS. Still, there is no doubt that Nokia makes great hardware, and that Windows Phone does have capabilities that stand out (such as focus on content via live tiles, as well as easy integration for the enterprise market).

Does an Android-based Nokia phone make sense?

Before the jump to Windows Phone, Nokia had been rumored to be also considering Android as its platform of choice, given the popularity of the operating system. However, the company wanted to differentiate itself and instead build on a so-called third ecosystem. Who would want to play second-fiddle to Samsung, after all? With Windows Phone and a close partnership with Microsoft, Nokia could still, somehow, call the shots.

It is therefore not surprising to hear that Nokia is building on the Android platform after all. This was brought on by @EVLeaks, an oft-cited source for such insider information, which reported that Nokia had been developing a device codenamed “Normandy” as of November this year. Normandy runs a forked variant of Android — something similar to how Amazon has forked the operating system for its Kindle Fire line of devices.

The device inherits the same design cues from Nokia’s Lumia line, but without the capacitive “buttons” on the bezel. And because it runs a fork of Android, Normandy will run Android apps, much like other forks (like MIUI and CyanogenMod), and like other third-party OSes that support Android apps like Sailfish OS.

According to sources, the Normandy platform will be targeted at the low end, which Nokia’s Series 40-based Asha line currently occupies. Nokia is reportedly gearing for a launch in 2014, with development “full steam ahead.”

Benefits and challenges

Forking Android does give Nokia several benefits. First, because it’s based on an operating system with almost a million apps out in the market, users will not have difficulty customizing it to their needs. Nokia can therefore find a popular audience for Normandy rather than a niche audience that the likes of BlackBerry and Windows phone are currently engaging.

Second, much like how Amazon has customized the Kindle Fire OS to its needs, Nokia will be able to tweak and optimize Normandy for theirs. This can include focusing on its own ecosystem of applications and services. Nokia might be able to run its own app and content marketplace. (But, of course, it can be argued that locking Android to a particular ecosystem will devalue the device rather than increase its appeal.)

There is one big hurdle, however: Microsoft’s ongoing acquisition of Nokia. Once the deal is finalized, there is no knowing whether Microsoft will still be interested in selling inexpensive Nokia smartphones that run Android instead of its own home-grown Windows Phone platform. True, Microsoft still does earn billions by licensing certain technologies to Android, but it might not make sense to sell a competing OS if one can instead focus on growing its own audience.

I still have hopes for an Android-powered Nokia. Normandy might just be the platform Nokia and Android fans have been waiting for.