Nokia has announced three low-cost phones that run a customized version of Android intended to let users access Android apps while being introduced to Microsoft services.
Nokia is set to become part of Microsoft almost any day, once the deal made in September 2013 becomes final.
Yet at Mobile World Congress, being held in Barcelona, not only is Nokia showcasing its budget Asha line of phones and its high end Lumia range, running Windows Phone 8, it is introducing the Nokia X range of devices that run an open Android operating system.
In this video Nokia's Director of Product Marketing Neil Broadly introduces the Nokia X (priced 89€); X+ (99€) and XL (109€).
The euro pricing is significant. When the Nokia X starts shipping next week is will be to Europe and to emerging markets in China, Indonesia, Thailand, Central America, India, and the Middle East. It will not go on sale in the US and Canada where the plan is to ship the mid-to-high end Lumia devices based on the Windows phone OS.
The point to note is that although the OS is based on the Android Open Source Project version 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, the X in the name refers to Crossover - Android apps together with the Microsoft cloud.
The range doesn't use Google's core mobile services such as Gmail and Drive. Instead it relies on Microsoft's Outlook and OneDrive. Skype is also an important part of the mix with Microsoft offering a month of free calls to landlines via Skype in some of its target markets. Nokia's own HERE Maps and Mix Radio are also part of the crossover mix. Even the user interface has been tweaked to look like the Windows Phone.
So how does Nokia X range square with Nokia becoming part of Microsoft?
What is Microsoft's reaction?
According to Stephen Elop who appeared onstage at MWC
“There’s a lot of people in Redmond very excited about being able to reach, literally, tens of millions of people who have no other way of having an experience with Microsoft. The average person that will buy a Nokia X does not have a PC, does not have a tablet, has missed that generation of experiences.”
He also suggested that the Nokia X, which has Windows 8-style tabs, could be a feeder system for the Lumia saying:
"We have Android app compatibility while introducing the next billion people to Microsoft. This is a gateway to Microsoft."
The official comment from Microsoft was more restrained. On the Official Microsoft Blog, Corporate VP of Communications Frank Shaw noted that Nokia was still an independent company until the acquisition is completed. While being "pleased" about the introduction of Microsoft services like Skype, OneDrive and Outlook.com on these devices his final point was:
"Our primary smartphone strategy remains Windows Phone, and our core device platform for developers is the Windows platform."
From the developer's point of view this new version of Android means yet another flavor of mobile OS to create programs for, with the associated opportunities and burdens this brings with it.
In this case the main difference between Nokia Android and Google Android are the services you can make use of - apps will have to be modified to use Nokia maps rather than Google maps, say. There is also the small detail that the OS has no access to the Google Play store and Nokia is setting up yet another app store just for their version of Android.
So much fragmentation isn't good for the programmer, but in this case the difficulties are going to be small.
As far as Microsoft goes, the move might be a good one and if the Nokia Android is a success it might be time to dump Windows Phone and save the development effort.
A Microsoft flavor of Android could put the company back into the mobile market and allow it to develop its delivery of desktop and cloud services. It could be good for Windows and for Azure. If the number of Nokia X phones significantly outstrips the number of WP8 phones, not a difficult task, then the attitude in Redmond could change to see the sense in going with what the market wants.
Should you be worried that Microsoft might drop WP8?