Forking Android: A good ‘Plan B’ for Nokia and Microsoft?

Nokia has launched its Nokia X line, which runs a forked version of Android that features Microsoft services and APIs. Could this be a good “Plan B” for Nokia and Microsoft?

Nokia X Elop

It’s official: Nokia has announced its Nokia X series, which comes in three variants: the X, X+ and XL. Nokia X is basically Android without the GMS part. Nokia has “forked” Android by using the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) as the platform’s base, then adding a services framework that will run Microsoft’s and Nokia’s own APIs, for location, in-app purchases and notifications API.

Some say this fork has been several years in waiting, given that Nokia did consider switching to Android as its main platform before Stephen Elop and Co. announced the shift to Windows Phone in 2011. Interestingly enough, the launch of Nokia X comes at a time when Microsoft is finalizing the acquisition of Nokia’s mobile services division. Quite soon, Nokia will be integrated into Microsoft. Should it matter that Nokia is running Android at the core of its mid-range smartphone series?

More Microsoft than Google

Wait, are you sure this is an Android phone?
Wait, are you sure this is an Android phone?

The big deal with Nokia X is that it is essentially Microsoft instead of Google. “The Nokia X takes people to Microsoft’s cloud, not to Google’s cloud,” said Stephen Elop, former CEO of Nokia, and now head of the company’s mobile services division. He said that Nokia X presents an “essentially different but complementary opportunity to introduce a new family that strengthens our affordable [devices] family.”

Nokia X will be a “feeder” device to Windows Phone. It is priced competitively against entry-level Android devices by major brands, starting at $122 for the base X model. This is is a step above the Nokia Asha series, but still cheaper than the entry-level Lumia.

Nokia X does not come with the familiar widgets-and-icons interface of the typical Android launcher, but will come in Metro-style tiled layout. Microsoft’s cloud also includes Outlook, OneDrive, Skype and Office 365, instead of the usual Gmail, Google Drive and Hangouts, for example.

Why Android is Good for Microsoft and Nokia

Credit: IBTimes UK
Credit: IBTimes UK

Given this, users should find it easy to upgrade from the Nokia X to a higher-end Lumia device — the interface is highly similar to Windows Phone. Additionally, integration with Microsoft services makes the migration path easier from Nokia to Windows Phone. Elop said the phone will not be marketed as an Android device, but rather as “an affordable phone”. It just so happens that the phone runs Android.

At least this is the assumption. Microsoft and Nokia are banking on users being dependent on its own services rather than competing services by Google. Therefore, this presents an opportunity for growth rather than competition.

If anything, Nokia’s adoption of Android means that Microsoft is willing to be neutral when it comes to dealing with device makers, even if these are partners or even subsidiaries. Take the case of Google and Motorola, for example. When Google acquired Motorola, this caused tension between the search company and the various manufacturers that ran Android — primarily Samsung. Google was seen to be extending favoritism. From the perspective of the subsidiary, meanwhile, it would want better support and faster updates for its own devices, lest it feel alienated by its owner. (With Google selling Motorola to Lenovo, it’s now all good with Samsung.)

Either way, the platform owner also owning a mobile device maker does come with these tensions. Nokia’s adoption of Android would be seen as a way for Microsoft to still have some platform-neutrality, if only in terms of the core operating system running on Nokia’s devices. With the Nokia X, the likelihood of other manufacturers calling out Microsoft for favoritism could be minimized. Meanwhile, Nokia won’t need to be coddled by Microsoft — they can simply shift focus on their own Android fork efforts if Windows Phone becomes too limiting for the mobile division’s needs.

It’s all about the ecosystem

"I've got my kids brainwashed: You don't use Google, and you don't use an iPod," said Ballmer sometime in 2011.
“I’ve got my kids brainwashed: You don’t use Google, and you don’t use an iPod,” said Ballmer sometime in 2011.

Now here’s where the idea of “Plan B” comes. Microsoft is a distant third ecosystem compared with iOS and Android, commanding only about 3.5 percent of market share in smartphones. The competition in attracting developers can be as tough as attracting users. Why ask developers to build for yet another platform when developing for both iOS and Android consumes quite a lot of effort in itself.

This might seem counter-intuitive, especially given Microsoft’s push to unify its development platform for mobile (Windows Phone) and desktop (Windows 8). However, Android’s development platform is now seen as standard by other platforms as well, including BlackBerry, Samsung’s Tizen and newcomer Sailfish OS, among others. Support for the “hundreds of thousands” of Android apps out there might be as important as running the ecosystem and managing the services layer that comes with it.

Even Elop admits that Windows Phone is seen as lacking in terms of apps, even if popular apps have found their way to the platform. Will this be a good way to combat the stigma of a supposedly small ecosystem?

It’s the best of both worlds for Microsoft and Nokia. I wonder if more devices running a Microsoft-focused Android fork — or at least Windows Phone running Android apps — will be the norm in the future.