Nokia's best bet for a tablet? It's Android

Summary:Just because Nokia is doing a great job of building and selling Windows Phone doesn't mean it has to build a Windows tablet. Android might be a better bet.

Thumbnail - Nokia and Android
Nokia and Android. A match made in heaven.

Why hadn't Nokia released a tablet yet? It seems an obvious thing to do. Whatever you think of Windows Phone as an operating system, it's easy to imagine Nokia banging out something that feels as good as a Surface.

The answer might be focus. Same question applies to BlackBerry -- why is BlackBerry focused solely on smartphones when it has a decent enough tablet out there in the market? (OK, so it's operating system needs refreshing, but that will happen.) Both Nokia and BlackBerry had the same problem, i.e. it needed to do a reboot of their entire product line and it's both easier for the company to execute and the market to understand if you only do one thing at a time.

The fact that Nokia doesn't have a tablet in the market now, is a good thing. It gives the market time to understand Lumia, and stops Nokia chasing after Windows 8 and Windows RT as a reflex reaction.

But Stephen Elop, Nokia's CEO is starting to drop hints about a new tablet. And, happily, he's holding his cards close to his chest about what operating system he might uses.

Choices

We know that Nokia needed to reboot their smartphone offerings as they were being squeezed badly by iPhone and Android. In Elop's "burning platform" memo (the full text of which is worth a read if it's been a while since you last looked), he talks about how Nokia can either "build, catalyze, or join an ecosystem". In reality, the move with Windows Phone I think was all three. Like the classic Heisenberg problem, Nokia almost certainly changed Windows Phone via it's involvement and hence part of what Nokia ended up doing, I think, was to "build" even though this wasn't their primary objective. Whether you then regard what they did with Windows Phone as "catalysing" or "joining", is up for grabs -- for the sake of argument, let's assume one of those choices is Android and the other is Windows Phone.

Nokia would be mad not to be thinking about building a tablet as by every meaningful measure tablets and smartphones are just two sides to the same post-PC coin. We know Nokia can execute a smartphone, so surely they can also execute a tablet. But, who's to say they need to continue do that with Microsoft just because of Lumia. Whether or not you think Windows 8 is a good tablet OS or not , Windows 8 does have problems that Nokia would be best to avoid.

One of the first problems is that with Windows 8/Windows RT it's currently not possible to build something that hardware-wise competes with the iPad mini, or the Nexus 7, or even the Kindle Fire. The last thing Nokia needs is to produce a tablet that can't go toe-to-toe with those three. Note that I'm talking about the iPad mini here. In the consumer space, it appears the smaller form factor tablets are a much better fit for people's lives.

Nokia would have to choose whether to build an ARM-based tablet, or an x86-based tablet. I frankly don't believe that given current technology it's possible to build a small, passively-cooled, high-performance device with long battery life that can compete with those three hero devices in the market. An x86-based iPad mini competitor would be a total disaster. It has to be ARM, unless Nokia only wants to build a large, x86-based tablet for the business market.

Anyone can build a good, small tablet based on an ARM-chipset. But if Nokia sticks with Microsoft, they are right out there on a limb supporting Windows RT, this being a product that is attracting a questionable amount of love from the market . Moreover, they'd be competing directly with their business partner for sales within that (tiny) market. I have no idea why anyone would deliberately choose to play that game -- it doesn't feel like one that would end well.

But let's leave the question as to whether a Nokia tablet would be ARM-based or x86-based and think about the ecosystem.

Ecosystem

Microsoft has not committed to harmonising their smartphone and tablet development models together. At present, if you build a Windows Phone 8 app, you cannot run that on a Windows 8 or Windows RT tablet. Why this is important is that developers can do this on iOS, Android, and even BlackBerry. Microsoft is the only vendor with a post-PC platform that does not scale across the two device categories of smartphones and tablets.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the first thing Nokia does not gain from building a tablet based on Windows 8 are any apps that developers have built for Windows Phone because the two application ecosystems are separate.

Moreover, this directly affects Nokia in a peculiar way. As a poster child for Windows Phone, Nokia would now have to go back to software companies that it has relationships with, talk to them about a new tablet platform, and immediately have to talk to them about migrating their apps over to another programming model. That could make the third time they'd had to have that conversation -- once convincing them of Windows Phone 7 in the first place, then convincing them to migrate their codebase to Windows Phone 8 (this isn't as easy as people would have you believe), and then split their codebase into Windows Phone and Windows Store variants (also not easy). For bonus points, they also get to tell their partners they don't know if or when the two platforms will come together and when a fourth set of engineering exercises will be needed.

There are other aspects to the ecosystem that are more nuanced than app availability. You can't buy Xbox Video content on Windows and watch it on Windows Phone, for example. Just like there isn't necessarily a straight line from Windows Phone to Windows for a normal customer other than a shared marketing identity, there isn't a straight line for Nokia to follow from Windows Phone to Windows either.

Conclusion

It's not so much like Android is a better choice than Windows, I think it's more than Android isn't any less bad.

There is one problem with Android, which you can see if you look at Samsung. Horace Dediu, superstar mobile analyst, reckons that Samsung is spending about $4bn a year marketing their electronics products. That is substantially more than Coca-Cola spends on marketing. Samsung is effectively fuelling Android with astonishing gusto from its own coffers. (This is why I couldn't parse Elop's statement about "catalysing or joining" an ecosystem -- if you're spending that much money, which one of those two things are you actually doing?)

With Android, vendors can either just use the open source bits of Android and make whatever they want, or they can license the Google-y bits of Android as well, specifically to gain access to Google Play. This is what Samsung does -- notionally, a good chunk of the money that Samsung is spending on marketing their products is actually pushing Google Play and the related ecosystem. Every Galaxy sold is a solid gold sales lead for Google.

There is an argument that Samsung should just branch Android like Amazon did with Kindle Fire and just go their own way. However, if they did that, they'd have an operating system with no apps, and no ecosystem because Google would likely decline to license access to Google Play.

The advantage to Nokia in junking the Google Play bits and "doing a Kindle Fire" is that they can build the system exactly how they would want it, and that's the bit that they're really good at. (Culturally, Samsung likely don't care about software in the same way that a company like Nokia does, hence why they're happy just to let Google take the secondary advantage.) Remember, Windows Phone probably would not be as good as Windows Phone is without Nokia's involvement. Nokia remains an organisation that can make fantastic products.

Back when Elop was talking about the "burning platform", the idea of Nokia building their own seemed ludicrous. Now, with Nokia having successful rebuilt their credibility within the market I see no reason why they can't leverage that goodwill into building a new ecosystem. After all, we've just witness BlackBerry do exactly that, and with its credibility balance bleeding just as much red ink as its cash balance.

And to get around the apps problem? Just look at what BlackBerry managed to do with BlackBerry 10. Not only did it launch with 70,000 apps , but it launched with masses of music and video content too. And it could be easier for Nokia as their system would be Android under the covers and the work developers would have to do would likely be more logistical than techncial. 

Is that what the future holds for Nokia? I'd love to see an 8" tablet, same size and weight as the iPad mini, running Android but with Nokia's unique feel with some best-of-breed apps. 

It could be lovely.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Google, Microsoft

Topics: Tablets

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.