Rumours that primary Windows Phone OEM Nokia has been two-timing Microsoft by keeping an Android phone project on its backburner have been doing the rounds for a while now (aka the rumoured Nokia Normandy device). But yesterday the Wall Street Journal tipped more fuel on this fire, citing “people familiar with the matter” confirming that Nokia will unveil an Android powered device at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona later this month.
Now there’s plenty of WTF here. Not least because Nokia is about to hand over its mobile making division to Windows Phone maker Microsoft in exchange for a substantial pile of cash (€5.44 billion/$7.2 billion). So why would Microsoft, which has its own mobile platform, sanction its soon to be mobile making division to build an Android-powered device?
On the surface, it sounds like madness. And yet, as others have previously speculated, there is potentially method to this madness — being as Windows Phone has failed to challenge Android’s reach at the lower end of the smartphone market.
The bottom-of-the-range $180 Lumia 520 (pictured at the top of this post), which was announced at last year’s MWC conference and has sold relatively well for a Windows Phone, is still a ways more pricey than the least expensive Droids (sub-$50 Android handsets are available in emerging markets).
Ergo, switching to Android for budget devices would be one way for Microsoft to slice itself a larger portion of a very large (and growing) chunk of the smartphone pie.
If the best traction for Windows Phone has been at the lower end price-point, then pushing that lower still could be a winning combination — even if the resulting phones won’t technically be Windows Phones. Yet they will look and taste like Windows Phones, spreading the flavour of Microsoft’s mobile OS further than it’s thus far been able to go.
The Android powered Nokia device the WSJ’s sources discuss would come preloaded with Microsoft (and Nokia) services, including a Nokia Android app store, rather than Google software and Google’s Play store — effectively making it a Trojan horse pushed inside the Android fortress to ‘on-ramp’ first time smartphone users.
Or a plucky landing on the shores of occupied territory, if you will.
The device would also not resemble vanilla Android in terms of its UI, but would rather be a fork of Android — just as Amazon has forked Android for its Kindle Fire tablets and to further its own ends, not Google’s — with Nokiasoft apparently dressing the interface to make it look like Windows Phone.
Doing that would mean the budget Droid could acclimatize first time smartphone users to a Windows Phone world — i.e. in the hopes they will upgrade to a full-fat Windows Phone Lumia smartphone in the fullness of time.
According to the WSJ, Nokia engineers have been developing the Android device before agreeing to sell its mobile making division to Microsoft last fall. But up to now it hasn’t been clear whether Nokia planned to move ahead with the project or not.
The newspaper’s sources confirm the handset will be unveiled later this month — so presumably the project has been okayed by Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella.
Nokia is holding a press conference at MWC, where TC will be on hand to cover the news. (Albeit, Nokia’s understated invite for this event isn’t giving away any Droid-flavoured hints:)
It’s not clear whether the Normandy Android landing is a stop-gap strategy while Microsoft retools Windows Phone for even lower prices smartphones. But the WSJ says Microsoft will be refocusing WP attention on flagship smartphones, to better compete at the higher end. (Yeah, good luck with that…)
At its earning call last month, Nokia — the only substantial Windows Phone OEM (controlling 90% of the market according to AdDuplex) — revealed it sold a total of just 30 million Lumia devices during in the whole of 2013.
Compare that to Android’s vast sprawl: Google announced 900M active Android activations in May last year. And cumulative active Android activations are likely to break the billion mark this year as the platform continues to expand to new device types to fuel further growth.
With comparative numbers like those it’s not hard to see Microsoft’s logic in signing off a Windows Phone-flavoured Android-powered low end smartphone Trojan horse.
Windows Phone certainly needs a better growth strategy. Some might say it needs a growth strategy period. And, ironically, piggybacking on Android may be the best way to achieve that elusive momentum.
At the time of writing Nokia had not responded to a request for comment. Update: A Nokia spokeswoman declined to comment, saying Nokia doesn’t comment on market rumour and speculation.