Nokia’s Forking Of Android Could Benefit Google

Back in October last year, I first heard rumblings that Nokia was working on an Android handset. “Devs rumor but rather solid, not confirmed by eye,” said my source. Not long afterwards, others began to report similar rumours. However, at the time it remained unclear whether this was simply the remnants of an existing skunkworks project that would never see the light of day — Nokia’s plan B, if you will, after it chose Microsoft’s Windows Phone as its primary smartphone platform — or something more significant.

What I also couldn’t figure out was how Nokia had resolved the “risk of commoditization” that then CEO Stephen Elop had cited as reason for not adopting Google’s mobile OS over Microsoft’s platform in the first place, once the decision had been taken to ditch its own Symbian and MeeGo OS efforts. With today’s unveiling of the Nokia X — Nokia’s first Android phone, which is targeting emerging markets and designed to be a Windows Phone “feeder” — we now have the answer.

But first, here’s how I summed up Nokia’s Android dilemma in early 2011, shortly after news of its Microsoft Windows Phone partnership first broke:

… as Nokia explored adopting Android with Google it was the “commoditization risk“, as Elop has since described it, that turned out to be the deal-breaker. Specifically, Nokia wanted to replace Google Maps with its own Ovi offering, along with changes to Android’s handling of email, contacts, calendar, app-store and over-the-air software management in an effort to stop value moving entirely to Google – to which the search giant said no. Unless, that is, Nokia wanted to fork Android completely and therefore “stay behind the curve.”

Hell-bent on competing with Google in apps and services, and staying true to Elop’s original thinking, Nokia has chosen to use its own forked version of Android for the Nokia X, swapping out a plethora of Google offerings for its and Microsoft’s own, similar to Amazon’s Kindle Fire strategy. But in doing so, it’s also swapped the risk of commoditisation with the risk that comes with fragmentation. A decision that, ironically, could leave it lagging behind in third-party app support all over again.

As my colleague Natasha Lomas explains: “The huge draw of a Nokia handset built atop Android is of course access to the Android app ecosystem — and the circa one million apps that brings.” Except it doesn’t, at least not right away, since the Nokia X swaps Google Play for Nokia’s own Android app store. Nokia also says that not all Android apps will be compatible with Nokia X; it reckons 75 percent will work “out of the box,” and is hoping to persuade developers to make the necessary API tweaks to the remaining quarter.

Nokia’s banking that its reach and scale in the markets it’s targeting will mean it can attract the extra developer support required to make its own version of Android a success, but fragmentation is a dirty word in the ears of app makers, no matter the logic. And for end-users it can be confusing and frustrating (as a BlackBerry 10 user, which purports to support Android, I should know).

Which leads me to this whole “feeding” Lumia strategy; Nokia’s belief that its Android-based Nokia X can be a feeder for users who’ll eventually upgrade to a more powerful (and more expensive) Lumia running Windows Phone.

Consider this: What if the risk of fragmentation turns out to be a complete non-issue — which it may well do — and the Nokia X and future Nokia Android handsets keep apace with the app store race? It could lead to a situation where an “upgrade” to Lumia would feel like a downgrade if a Nokia X user’s favourite Android apps were conspicuous by their absence on Windows Phone (remember the Instagram debacle, anyone?).

Were this situation to arise, a better choice for a Nokia X owner might be to upgrade to a Samsung or any number of other mid-tier Android phones, which incidentally carry Google’s services. That would not only leave a bad taste in Nokia’s mouth, but Google would be left licking its lips, too, knowing that most of the value created by Nokia’s adoption of Android could end up on Mountain View’s plate after all. Unless, of course, Microsoft cancels the Nokia X product, once its acquisition of Nokia’s smartphone division completes later this year.