On February 24, Nokia did what many company watchers and developers thought it never would or could do: Introduce an Android-based phone family. Many of these same folks are now predicting that as soon as Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia officially closes, Microsoft will kill these devices faster than anyone can say "Kin."
I think Microsoft will do nothing of the sort, as I've predicted before.
While many Windows Phone developers were justifiably worried about the muddling of messages that would be created by Microsoft/Nokia supporting the arch enemy of the Windows Phone OS, Android, there are a couple reasons Microsoft may decide to keep the X family alive.
The first reason is somewhat counterintuitive. It's about developers, developers, developers. But in this case I don't mean Windows Phone developers.
With the X, Nokia is clearly wooing Android developers who want to build apps for users in developing markets. The Nokia X platform includes the Linux kernel, the open source pieces of Android (Dalvik, general open-source Android libraries and the application framework), extensions that Nokia has made to that framework, and Nokia application programming interfaces (APIs) that Nokia built to replace Google Play store APIs. Nokia already has built APIs for maps, push notifications and in-app billing that replace Google's comparable APIs.
According to Nokia officials, Nokia has tested more than 100,000 Android apps on the X, and "75 percent are directly compatible and ready to be published to Nokia Store." Nokia officials are on the record saying it will take Android developers usually less than eight hours to replace Google's services with Nokia's corresponding services. Developers will be able to develop and distribute their apps in a single APK file format targeting multiple stores, Nokia officials are guaranteeing.
Nokia is making available to Android developers an Android Developer Tools (ADT) plug-in for Eclipse/Android SDK, as well as a new Android development based on IntelliJIDEA, JetBrains' Java intelligent development environment, called Android Studio. (Android Studio requires the latest version of Java Development Kit.)
Nokia X users will be able to download Android apps from the Nokia Store, as well as unnamed third-party app stores. Users will be able to sideload Android apps, as well, according to Nokia. I haven't seen any particulars on whether and how Nokia will sandbox and/or separate these Android apps from the non-Android ones.
If you're Microsoft -- which still does not yet officially "own" the Nokia handset business -- the Nokia X makes life tricky for you from a positioning standpoint. Microsoft's head of Corporate Communications Frank Shaw described the Nokia X as phones "which will compete with Android devices in the affordable smartphone category and introduce the Microsoft cloud to a new set of customers in growth markets."
But if you're Microsoft -- and your execs are mulling how and if they can get Android apps to run on Windows and Windows Phone (which I've heard they are) -- the Nokia X also has to be quite interesting to you. Microsoft's unified operating system team would love a way to get more apps on Windows in a way that doesn't alienate its own developer base. I'm sure these folks are keeping close tabs on Nokia's developer messaging, tools and Store policies and procedures to see if there's anything worth emulating/borrowing.
Nokia officials are positioning the Nokia X family as the gateway to Nokia and Microsoft services, as well as Lumia smartphones. None of these X phones will be sold in the U.S., according to Nokia's press materials, but they will be sold in all other geographies. Nokia built a user interface for these phones called FastLane that provides access to recently used apps and services. The X family feature Skype, OneDrive, HERE maps and Nokia Radio.
Where will Microsoft likely make the most money in the future with its phone line? In apps and services -- and some day maybe in hardware to some extent -- not in licensing the OS. That's why the "new" Microsoft may be more OS agnostic than the old Microsoft. Microsoft's goal is to try to find a way to make Windows/Windows Phone the one platform that customers will use, no matter what kinds of apps they want to run.
To me, the murky messaging isn't so much around whether Nokia's new Android devices compete with Windows Phone, but more whether they compete with Nokia's Asha feature phone line. I'd think the X family is meant to be the ultimate replacement for the Asha family -- which Nokia looks to be deemphasizing from a developer standpoint. But no one at Nokia has said officially this is the gameplan.
Nokia X: Will Microsoft deep-six it or keep it? Right now, I'm thinking "keep." You?