Next week, we might see Nokia’s entry-level feature phones replaced by a low-end device running Android Open Source Project software. The phone may just be a fantasy, but the dilemma facing Nokia’s feature phone business is quite real: Embrace Android or be killed by it. 

Nokia will announce an Android phone! So says the persistent rumor, started about three months ago by an @evleaks tweet, and followed by more details as weeks went by. Initially code-named Normandy, the hypothetical feature phone is now called Nokia X, and it already has its own Wikipedia page and pictures:

Nokia X

Nokia is on the path to being acquired by Microsoft. Why introduce an Android-based phone now? The accepted reasoning is simple…

  • Even though it doesn’t generate much revenue per handset (only $42), Nokia’s feature phone business is huge and must be protected. Nokia’s Form 20-F for 2012 (the 2013 report hasn’t been published, yet) shows its phone numbers compared to the previous year:
    • 35M smartphones (-55%) at an average price (ASP) of $210 (+ 11%)
    • 300M feature phones (-12%) with an ASP of $42 (- 11%)
  • These 300 million feature phones — or “dumbphones” — keep the Nokia flag waving, particularly in developing economies, and they act as an up-ramp towards more profitable smartphones.
  • Lately, dumbphones have become smarter. With the help of Moore’s Law, vigorous competition, and Android Open Source Project (AOSP) software, yesterday’s underfed, spartan feature phones are being displaced by entry-level smartphones. Asha, Nokia’s offering in this category, has been mowed down by low-end Android devices from China.
  • Nokia can’t help but notice that these AOSP-based feature phones act as a gateway drug to the full-blown Android smartphone experience (and much larger profits) offered by competitors such as Samsung, Huawei, and Motorola’s new owner Lenovo.
  • So Nokia drops its over-the-hill Symbian software core, adopts Android, adds its own (and Microsoft’s) services, design expertise, and carrier relationships, and the result is Nokia X, a cleaner, smarter feature phone.

That’s it. Very tactical. Business as usual, only better. Move along, nothing to see.

It’s not that simple.

There’s an important difference between the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), and the full Android environment that’s offered by Samsung, LG, HTC and the like.

The Android Open Source Project is really Open Source, you can download the source code here, modify it as you see fit for your application, add layers of services, substitute parts…anything you like.

Well, almost anything. The one thing you can’t do is slap a figurative “Android Inside” sticker on your device. To do that, you must comply with Google’s strict compatibility requirements that force licensees to bundle Google Mobile (Maps, Gmail, YouTube, etc.) and Google Play (the store for apps and other content). The result isn’t open or free, but smartphone makers who want the Android imprimatur must accept the entire stack.

As an added incentive to stay clean, a “Full Android” licensee cannot also market devices that use a different, incompatible version (or “fork”) of the Android code published by Google. A well-know example of forking is Amazon’s use of Android source code to create the software engine that runs its high-end Kindle Fire tablets. You won’t find a single instance of the word “Android” on these devices: Google won’t license the name for such uses.

(For more on the murky world of Android licensing, bundling, and marketing agreements, see Ben Edelman’s research paper: Secret Ties in Google’s “Open” Android.)

The hypothetical, entry-level Nokia X can’t offer an entire Android stack — it can’t be allowed to compete with the higher-end Lumias powered by Microsoft’s Windows Phone — so it would have to run an “unmentionable” Android fork.

Even without the “Android Inside” label, everyone would soon know the truth about the Android code inside the new device. This could give pause to software developers, carriers, and, the more curious users. “Where is Microsoft going with this? Won’t the Android beast inside soon work its way up the product line and displace the Windows Phone OS?”

Microsoft will make soothing sounds: “Trust us, nothing of the sort will ever happen.  Nokia X is a purely tactical ploy, a placeholder that will give Windows Phone enough time to reveal its full potential.” We know how well attempts to create a Reality Distortion Field have worked for Microsoft’s Post-PC denials.

The Redmond not-so-mobile giant faces a dilemma: Lose the Asha feature phone business to aggressive forked-Android makers, or risk poisoning its Windows Phone business by introducing potentially expansionist Android seeds at the bottom of its handset line.

Several observers (see Charles Arthur’s penetrating Guardian column as an example) have concluded that Microsoft should follow Amazon’s lead and accept the “Come To Android” moment. It should drop Windows Phone and run a familiar Embrace and Extend play: Embrace Android and Extend it with Bing, Nokia’s Here Maps, Office, and other Microsoft properties.

Critics, such as Peter Bright, an energetic Microsoft commenter, contend that forking Android isn’t feasible:

“Android isn’t designed to be forked. With GMS, Google has deliberately designed Android to resist forking. Suggestions that Microsoft scrap its own operating system in favor of such a fork simply betray a lack of understanding of the way Google has built the Android platform.”

Dianne Hackborn, a senior Android engineer (and a former comrade of mine during a previous OS war) contradicts Bright in great point-by-point detail and concludes:

“Actually, I don’t think you have an understanding of how Google has built Android. I have been actively involved in designing and implementing Android since early on, and it was very much designed to be an open-source platform… Android creates a much more equal playing field for others to compete with Google’s services than is provided by the proprietary platforms it is competing with. I also think a good argument can be made that Android’s strategy for addressing today’s need to integrate cloud services into the base platform is an entirely appropriate model for a ‘real’ open-source platform to take.”

In the end, Microsoft probably doesn’t trust Google to refrain from the same games that Microsoft itself knows (too well) how to play. Microsoft used its control of Windows to favor its Office applications. Now it’s Google’s turn. The Mountain View company appears set to kill Microsoft Office, slowly but surely, and using all means available: OS platforms and Cloud services.

None of this draws a pretty picture for Microsoft’s mobile future. Damned if it introduces Android bits at the low end, damned if it lets that same software kill its Asha feature phone business.

JLG@mondaynote.com
@gassee
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PS: Almost four years ago, I wrote a light-hearted piece titled Science Fiction: Nokia goes Android. It was actually less fictional than I let on at the time. In June 2010, I was asked to give a talk at Nokia’s US HQ in White Plains, NY. I was supposed to discuss Apple but I declined to spend too much time on that topic arguing that the Cupertino company was too “foreign” to Nokia’s culture. Instead, I made two suggestions: Fire your CEO and drop your four or five software platforms — Symbian and Linux variants — and adopt Android. Nokia’s combination of industrial design expertise, manufacturing might, and long-standing, globe-spanning carrier relationships could make it a formidable Android smartphone maker.

The first recommendation was warmly received — there was no love for Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, the accountant cum attorney CEO.

The second was met with indignation: “We can’t lose control of our destiny”. I tried to explain that the loss had already taken place, that too many software platforms were a sure way to get killed at the hands of monomaniacal adversaries.

Three months later Kallasvuo was replaced…by a Microsoft alum who immediately osborned Nokia’s smartphone business by pre-announcing the move to Windows Phone almost a year before the new devices became available.

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