Is Nokia nuts? Maybe not. At a time the company is trying to generate momentum for Windows Phone–and its sale to Microsoft gets finalized–rumor has it that Nokia will unveil its first Android phone at Mobile World Congress in late February. This is not a flagship device like the Lumia 1020 but reportedly a lower-end smartphone designed to generate a very high volume of sales, especially in emerging markets. Initially codenamed Normandy but now apparently dubbed X Phone (according to The Wall Street Journal), here’s what we think we know about Nokia’s hotly anticipated handset–and why it just might work.
Similar to Amazon, it looks like Nokia is “forking” the Android OS with its own interface. This means the X Phone won’t get the Google Play Store, Gmail, YouTube and presumably any other Google service. However, as ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley points out, Nokia will likely have its own app store (similar to the Kindle) and will pre-load its own services, such as Here Maps. Leaked screenshots also point to Nokia’s forked device supporting such third-party Android apps as BBM (an alternative to Google Talk), Vine, Viber and WeChat. We’re not assuming this is with Microsoft’s blessing, but it appears as though Skype and Xbox Music are coming to the X Phone, too.
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One look at the UI for the X Phone, which surfaced from @evleaks, and you’ll swear that you’re staring at a Windows Phone device. The colorful tile-based software is nearly identical to what you’ll find on a more premium Lumia. And why not? We’re guessing that these tiles aren’t “live” as they are on Windows Phones, delivering streaming updates in the background. (As with other Android phones, leaked images show that the X Phone will have its own notification drawer.) It does look like you’ll at least be able to place the tiles where you see fit and perhaps resize them.
When you’re trying to hit a low price (like well under $150 without a contract), you can’t expect cutting edge specs. So you shouldn’t be surprised that The Verge reports that the X Phone will sport a Qualcomm S4 processor, just 4GB of storage and a measly 512MB of RAM. You could also be looking at a 3-MP camera, which is pretty low-res regardless of the target audience. At least there seems to be a microSD Card slot on board.
The Windows Phone-powered Nokia Lumia 521 (just $102 for the full retail price on T-Mobile) is very cheap, too. That handset has a 1-GHz dual-core Qualcomm CPU, 512MB of RAM and 8GB of flash memory, so we’re assuming that Nokia is aiming for an even broader audience with an X Phone. Or it could be the case that Nokia simply isn’t getting the distribution it wants quickly enough with Windows Phone.
Given that Android is the enemy of Windows Phone, Microsoft’s first instinct might be to kill the X Phone before it sees the light of day. But there are strong reasons for new CEO Satya Nadella to back this project. For starters, for those who would question Microsoft’s commitment to Windows Phone, the company could point to this project being under development before it and Nokia hooked up. Nokia and Microsoft could also say that this initiative is explicitly aimed at the same crowd Nokia’s lower end Asha OS attempted to serve. That this is merely a replacement.
Furthermore, the X Phone could introduce millions of customers to Nokia’s and Microsoft’s services. Some of these services would be premium offerings, leading to substantial subscription revenue, while others could engender and maintain loyalty (aka lock-in) as folks switch between tablet, PC and desktop.
What Nokia is doing with the X Phone is painting Android as a stepping stone to a more premium Windows Phone device. That’s a more palatable message to Microsoft then stuffing a 40-megapixel camera inside a Lumia droid. At the same time, Nokia gets instant access to many more apps than what the Windows Phone ecosystem provides. But will the masses like it? They could, but only if Nokia can fill in the gaps left by not having Google’s services on board.
Should the X Phone succeed, there’s nothing to prevent Nokia from building a higher-end Android phone–other than perhaps Microsoft’s pride.