It appears that hell is freezing over and there are now strong rumors that on the evening of the completion of the deal with Microsoft, Nokia is going to push out an Android phone.
I’ve been more than a bit puzzled about this apparent move for a few weeks but I think I’ve figured out a possible universe where this actually makes sense. Disclaimer, I’ve been outside of Nokia for quite some time now and don’t have any information that I shouldn’t be sharing. I’m just speculating.
A few days ago Ars Technica published an article where they were recommending that in fact Nokia should not be forking Android, which is what it appears to be doing. One of the big arguments against this was that this isn’t working that well for Amazon either. Amazon has not licensed Google Play Services, which basically is what you need to license to get access to the play store, chrome, google maps, and all the rest of the Google circus. So while Amazon’s Kindles with Android are perfectly nice tablets to use, most Android apps are not available for it because of compatibility issues and because most app developers don’t look beyond the Google store. Blackberry has exactly the same problem (in so far they still have any ambitions in this respect).
Companies like HTC and Samsung have signed licensing deals with Google and this means they have to ship whatever Google tells them to ship and in fact the software updates for anything related to Play Services completely bypass whatever firmware these companies ship and instead updates over the air constantly. This is Google’s fix for the problem that these companies are normally hopelessly behind with updates. I recently played with a Samsung and most of their added value software wise is dubious at best. Most of it is outright crap and most tech savvy users prefer stock android. I know I like my Nexus 5 a lot better at least. Samsung is a hardware manufacturer without a solid software play. Amazon doesn’t want to be in that position, for them the software and hardware business is just a means towards an end: selling Amazon content. They compete with Google on this front and for this reason a deal between the two is unlikely.
So, I was thinking: exactly. It doesn’t make sense for Amazon to be doing this alone. Amazon needs a partner. What if that partner was Nokia + Microsoft? That would change the game substantially.
Amazon has already done a lot of work of trying to provide an implementation of Google’s proprietary APIs. Amazon is already a licensee of Nokia maps and together they could knock up an ecosystem that is big enough to convince application developers that it’s worth porting over to their app store. Microsoft and Nokia need to compete with Android not based on the notion that it is a better platform (because arguably it is not) but primarily based on the notion that it’s app store is filled with third party goodies. It’s the one thing that comes up in every review of a windows phone, blackberry (throwing them in for good measure), and Amazon device. Amazon + Nokia + Microsoft could fix this together. If you fix it for (very) low end phones, you can shove tens of millions of devices into the market in a very short time. That creates a whole new reality.
It seems that is exactly what Nokia is doing (if the rumors and screenshots are right): a low end Android phone with a windows phone like shell and without any of the Google services. One step up from this would be open sourcing the API layer that Amazon has done to provide compatibility with Google’s proprietary play services but instead plugged into competing services from Nokia, Microsoft, and Amazon. That would also be portable to other platforms. Other platforms like for example windows phone that also has had some app store related challenges. Microsoft actually has a lot of code that already makes a lot of sense on Android. For example, mono runs C# and other .Net stuff just fine on Android. With a bit of work, a lot of code could be ported over quite easily. Also, Microsoft and Nokia currently have a lot of Android manufacturers as paying customers. All they are currently getting is a license for the patents they are infringing on. And don’t forget that a lot of Android manufacturers are not necessarily happy with the power grab Google has been executing with Android. Their Play Services is a classic bait and switch strategy where they lured licensees in with open source which is now slowly being replaced with Google proprietary code. That’s why Samsung is making a big push with Tizen in the low end market this year. And it is also why people are eying Ubuntu, Firefox OS, and Sailfish as alternatives to Google.
In short, I’d be very surprised if Nokia was doing this by itself just before it sells the whole phone division. It doesn’t make sense. So, Microsoft has to be in it. And the only way that makes sense is if they want to take this all the way.
Will it work? I don’t know. I’ve seen both Microsoft and Nokia shoot themselves in their collective foots more than enough over the past few years. Both companies have done some amazingly stupid things. There is plenty of room for them to mess this up and they don’t have history on their side at this point. But it could work if they get their act together.