Nokia really is going Android with the launch of three 'gateway' devices called X

The last gasp of Nokia's devices unit before it gets sold to Microsoft is a radical departure from its normal Windows Phone smartphone strategy: three devices running Android.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
Stephen Elop onstage at MWC. Image: Liam Tung/ZDNet.com

Three years after ditching Symbian for Windows Phone, and mere months before being absorbed into the Microsoft empire, Nokia has released its first Android mobile phones.

The devices, called the Nokia X, X+ and XL, were unveiled at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona on Monday.

The widely-leaked Nokia X is a low-end device and appears to be aimed at emerging markets. It comes with a four-inch screen with an IPS display, a three-megapixel rear camera, 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage.

The X+ has the same four-inch screen, but adds an SD card slot, with a 4GB microSD card included. There's 768MB of RAM, 4GB of storage and a three-megapixel rear camera.

The XL has a five-inch screen, 768MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and two cameras: a two-megapixel front-facing camera and five-megapixel rear equivalent.

All three run dual-core 1Ghz Snapdragon processors from Qualcomm.

The devices are available in green, red, yellow, red and bright blue. The X, available now, will go for €89, the X+ is priced at €99 and slated for an early Q2 release, while the XL, also planned for early Q2, will cost €109. "The devices will be available broadly, starting in growth markets," across Asia-Pacific, Europe, India, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, said the head of devices and services at Nokia Stephen Elop - who is  soon to be head of Microsoft's devices business.

What makes the devices remarkable is that they won't be powered by Nokia's traditional choice for its lower-end handsets, the Series 40-based Asha OS, or its preferred smartphone operating system, Windows Phone. Instead, the X family will be running Android.

The four-inch X. Image: Nokia

Handset makers can use Android in two ways: by using the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) or by also using Google Mobile Services (GMS) which gives makers access to a raft of additional functionality, including likes of the Play app store and Google Maps. The former is a free-for-all, the latter requires handset makers to pass a certification process, and it isn't open source.

Android, but no Google services

Nokia has gone for AOSP for the X family, which means anyone buying the X, XL and X+ won't get access to the million or so apps available on Google Play. However, Android devs can port their Play apps to the handset in what Elop said would be "a matter of hours if even that", and the company will be offering a curated selection of apps through the Nokia store on the devices. X and X+ users can get apps from other Android app stores like Yandex, or in the case of the X+, sideload via the micro SD card.

"We will be taking advantage of the Android app and hardware ecosystems, but we have differentiatied by adding our own services and user experience," Elop said.

Despite being a slap in the face to Windows Phone, the Android-powered X and X+ do have a whiff of Redmond about it: Nokia's custom UI is tile-based, a nod to Windows Phone's own live tiles, including the ability to resize tiles. It will also feature Fastlane.

The phone will come with a range of Microsoft services already onboard: Skype, Nokia MixRadio and OneDrive. "Nokia X takes people to Microsoft's cloud not to Google's. This was very deliberate... with this Microsoft will be able to reach people it has never before," Elop said.

The release of the X family is a notable break with Nokia's past mobile strategy: although the company had used Symbian and experimented with MeeGo — both open source OSes — in the past, Nokia subsequently abandoned both to throw in its lot with Microsoft.

Gateway to Microsoft

According to Elop, while it may not involve a Microsoft OS, the Android-based X family will serve to bring more users to the company in emerging markets. The X family will be "a feeder system for Lumia", he said, and "gives people a gateway" to Microsoft's Windows Phone products.

It looks like Nokia is getting serious about emerging markets, with the devices chief announcing that both the Lumia and X ranges will get price drops in an effort to grow market share: the Lumia range will go to "lower and lower price points" in the not so distant future, he said, with the X family then "trending below that".

Despite its newfound interest in Android, the Lumia will remain Nokia's true focus on mobile. "Lumia continues to be our primary smartphone strategy," Elop said, adding all the company "innovation" will come to Lumia first.

The rumours of Nokia considering making an Android handset first surfaced last year, when the New York Times reported that the company had a working Lumia Android prototype when it began negotiations with Microsoft in February over a possible sale of its handset business.

When the acquisition was confirmed in September a €5.4bn deal that would see Microsoft take over its devices and services unit and license Nokia patents for 10 years - it was assumed that the Android plan had been shelved.

The X family looks to be the last gasp of Nokia as an independent smartphone maker — the Microsoft deal is expected to close later this quarter.

There were also a handful of other product announcements for Nokia's other product ranges. BBM will be coming to Lumia phones, Nokia said. "Particularly in emerging markets, we're going to see a lot of interest in BBM," Elop said.

Nokia also announced the Nokia 220, a 2G low-end device running Series 40. Priced at €29 for a single-SIM variant, the phone has a 2.4-inch display, and has Bing, Facebook and Twitter already loaded on the phone.

Nokia's smartphone-esque Asha line also got a new addition: the 230, the company's cheapest touch Asha so far at €45. An OS update is also on the way for the Asha OS, bringing access to OneDrive, and MixRadio for wi-fi handsets.

Correction: This article previously identified Stephen Elop as the current head of Microsoft's devices head. He is due to assume this role role once the acquisition of Nokia's devices unit closes later this quarter, and is currently executive VP of devices and services at Nokia.

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