Nokia, a dedicated partner of Microsoft for a while, and soon to sell its handset division to them, has unveiled at the Mobile World Congress a line of smartphones running Android. The Nokia X phones will become part of Microsoft when the acquisition is consummated, and that likely means these new phones aren't long for this world.
The low-end phones seem to be aimed at emerging markets. The hardware is typical Nokia and solidly built for the low price that the handsets will fetch. Nokia has a good track record in such markets and these phones make sense to expand it.
These phones will not run the typical Android besotted with Google's services. Nokia is cleverly going with the Google-less open source version of Android, and integrating Microsoft services. That's a smart approach for Nokia to take to enter the Android market.
Microsoft selling Android phones would be like selling a Surface model with Linux instead of Windows 8.
Where things get dicey is where Microsoft is concerned. It's important to acknowledge that Microsoft's purchase of Nokia's handset business has not happened yet, and won't for a while. That means the two companies are completely separate, and that Nokia is free to go about its Android business as it sees fit.
The problem sets in after that purchase is finalized. Microsoft will then own a line, albeit a small one, of smartphones that do not run its Windows Phone OS. That's kind of a sticky situation for the folks in Redmond. It's what it would be like if Microsoft sold a Surface model that ran Linux instead of Windows 8.
Then there's the problem of the product naming by Nokia. Surely Microsoft won't want to be selling a 'Nokia X' anything after it absorbs the Finnish products. 'Microsoft X' phones doesn't sound right, especially since they have nothing to do with the Xbox line.
ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley makes a reasonable case for her speculation that Microsoft might keep the Nokia Android phone line. She sees this as an opportunity for Microsoft to attract developers who want to produce Android apps for emerging markets. That sounds plausible, except this forked version of Android that Nokia is using is not quite the potentially lucrative app market where conventional Android apps are sold.
Nokia stated it finds apps to either run as is on its version of Android or that they can be easily ported to it. That's a positive thing, but the time to port is probably not the main concern developers might have. A forked version of Android means converted apps, and that means more effort to support them long term. Developers I've spoken to in the past find different versions of Android mean lots of additional effort (and costs) to support each one.
These apps will be sold in the Nokia Store given the lack of Google Play support. I've been told that store will be integrated into Microsoft as part of the acquisition, which will create logistical problems for the folks in Redmond. It doesn't make sense to have Android apps in the Microsoft Store where Windows and Windows Phone apps are sold. That would confuse Microsoft's customers. I can't see Microsoft having an Android store of any kind.
Ed Bott also thinks Microsoft will keep the Nokia X phones around and makes a solid case for it. His take that Microsoft is now a devices and services company, and not an OS company, supports having the Nokia Android effort around.
I can't argue against Mary Jo and Ed, but I just can't see Microsoft having Android products under its roof. Having to support another platform in addition to its own is going to be a tremendous effort, and while Microsoft has the resources to do it I can't see it. It just doesn't feel right to me and I think there are quite a few Microsofties who will feel the same.
It's not clear what Microsoft might do with these Android phones from Nokia, but the more I think about it the less likely I think it is the company will keep them around very long. The negatives outweigh the positives any way I look at it. I fully expect the Nokia X line to be 'kinned' shortly after Microsoft owns them.