Well that was awkward. After a Steve Ballmer-sized wave of anticipation, Nokia took the stage on Monday to announce its first Android-powered phone, the Nokia X, which promised to offer a marriage of classic manufacturing (Nokia) and critically-acclaimed software (Android). Finally, Nokia fans could reap all the benefits of the Google Play Store library while enjoying full integration of Google services.
“The [Nokia] X is a feeder system for Lumia,” said Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, “It takes people to Microsoft’s cloud, not Google’s cloud. We are deliberately using Android, but substituting Nokia services. This is a gateway to Microsoft.”
Nokia went on to explain the full strategy in surprisingly frank detail. The new line—the Nokia X, X+, and XL—would be targeted at emerging markets (including Eastern Europe, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Middle East), for people who’ve grown up on feature phones, but who are looking to buy their first smartphone on the cheap. The X line’s interface would look similar to the Windows-based Lumia line, would come packed with Microsoft services, and would simply use Android’s open source software stack in the background (presumably, to save costs and provide access to a wider range of apps).
So much for that fabled super phone: this is just plain old business—a budget phone for budget markets.
But the questions remain. Will this strategy actually work? Who’s going to buy these? And, with Microsoft’s in-progress acquisition of Nokia, how does the X line really fit in? Here are three unanswered questions about the Nokia X line.
1. Why not push the Lumia 520?
When Elop introduced the X line, he described it as a “stunning, surprising, new family that strengthens our affordable smartphone portfolio” (emphasis mine). But didn’t Nokia already make this phone? If you compare the 11-month old Lumia 520 to the Nokia X, the specs are almost identical, from screen size to pixel density to weight to price. The only obvious difference is the underlying Android operating system…which has been manipulated to look like a Windows phone anyway. If Nokia is trying to build a “gateway” to Microsoft, why not throw out the gate altogether, and just give customers the real thing?
2. Does this really solve Nokia’s app problem?
At every turn, Nokia downplayed the Android integration…except when it came to apps. The Nokia X, X+, and XL “are built on the Android Open Source Project software, which means people have access to hundreds of thousands of applications right out of the box,” Elop said. It’s Microsoft services plus Android’s vast app ecosystem: surely a win-win. But is it really that simple?
In reality, developers will still need to submit their Android-based apps to the Nokia Store for approval before Nokia X users can download them. Nokia has released a cheery video explaining just how easy this will be—75% will work without any modifications! And only a ‘few hours’ for the rest! Yes, that’s a lot simpler than building a Windows version of your iOS/Android app from the ground up, but it still adds one more hoop for developers. Many won’t jump unless they see strong Nokia X sales. Then there are the side issues of Google Play and Google Plus login systems (as it stands, they won’t work on the Nokia X), and developers’ general distrust of Nokia-run app stores (the company shut down the last one).
3. So is Nokia excited to be using Android…or not?
Elop’s jolly “gateway to Microsoft” statements had all the eloquence of a presidential talking point. The words seemed crafted to the syllable, as if they went through 12 revisions, three different writers and a last-minute adjustment by Microsoft. The problem is that the phone is just as safe as these statements. By mixing a bit of everything—Android, Microsoft services, and a half-baked Windows interface—Nokia has built a device that won’t offend anyone, but probably won’t delight anyone either, which might be the biggest problem of all.
Clearly, Microsoft’s pending acquisition is partly to blame. On Saturday, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore had this to say in anticipation of the coming announcements: “They’ll do some things we’re excited about, and some things we’re less excited about.”