Nokia, the world’s largest cellphone maker from 1998 to 2012, has let world domination slip through its fingers. Nokia’s trouble extends to developing nations, especially those in Africa and South Asia, where it’s getting beaten by Samsung and others. Yesterday at Mobile World Congress, the huge cellphone convention in Barcelona, Nokia unveiled a new strategy: a line of Android phones.
The new Nokia X line consists of three phones: the X, X+, and XL. They’re low-cost phones that look like anything but, with the body in bright shiny primary colors, solid and premium-feeling polycarbonate bodies, and software that relies on flat, bold squares of information. It’s good design brought to the most accessible platform available. And it just might help Nokia solve the problem of its diminishing popularity in the developing world.
Some background: The three most popular mobile operating systems (the underlying software platform on any phone) in the country are Android, used on popular phones like Samsung’s Galaxy series though any company can use it for free; iOS, which is owned by Apple and only appears on the iPhone; and Windows Phone, which is owned by Microsoft. Each is in fierce competition with the other. Nokia’s phone business was purchased by Microsoft last year, with the intent that Nokia become the sort of in-house manufacturer of Microsoft’s Windows Phone line of smartphones. So what is Nokia doing creating a line of phones that use Android, Microsoft’s competitor?
The new Nokia X phones are cheapies, not iPhone competitors. (There’s a good chance they won’t even be released in high-income countries like the United States.) But they’re much prettier than most cheapies: the homescreen is a bunch of bright, resizable squares, and the fonts and colors are pulled straight from the latest Lumia, Nokia’s high-end line of Windows Phones.
The Nokia X uses Android, but not in any form ever seen before; it’s what’s called a “fork” of Android, meaning it’s essentially Nokia’s own version. This is perfectly legal; Android is open-source, so anyone can do whatever he or she wants with it. (Amazon did the same thing with the Kindle Fire tablets.) The X line runs regular Android apps.
What’s nice about this, for Nokia, is that the company gets to experiment a little. Windows Phone has always been unquestionably beautiful and unique-looking from an aesthetic perspective. Just as unquestionably, it’s been a sales failure; its market share in the U.S. is less than 5%. But that’s due to problems other than design; it’s due to the extremely slow-to-grow Windows Phone app selection, due to the lack of polish that accompanies the operating system (which is young, compared to the more established iOS and Android), and the inherent difficulty of coming late to a race in which two products–Android and iOS–have about half of the market each. But the X line has none of those problems; it’s a way for Nokia’s design to take advantage of a more mature platform without Windows Phone’s weaknesses and see if people bite.
It’s also worth noting that Nokia hasn’t completely tossed Microsoft to the side; most of the built-in services on the X line will default to Microsoft services, like Bing search, Outlook email, and Microsoft’s music and movies stores. It’s almost a Trojan horse: here’s a nice-looking Android phone, but it’s secretly brainwashing you to become more familiar with Microsoft services and Microsoft-owned Nokia’s aesthetic.
The other reason for Nokia’s embracing of Android is more complex. Nokia hasn’t been a dominant phone-maker here in the States for a decade or more, but in developing countries like India, Nokia is a huge force. The company’s Symbian OS never made much of a dent Stateside, but became the first mobile operating system for a large swath of the planet. There’s an easy parallel to draw here with Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp, last week (WhatsApp, a chat app not very popular Stateside, sold to Facebook for an astounding $16 billion, 16 times more than popular companies like Instagram and YouTube). It’s a massive American company with a major presence in the developed world purchasing a company with little impact in the developed world but a huge presence in the developing world.
A phone destined for India and Africa needs to be cheap above all else, but it also needs to be compatible with everything possible. When your smartphone is your only internet-connected device, you can’t sacrifice functionality for aesthetics, as Windows Phone sometimes does. The Nokia X line runs on Android, which means it can do just about everything, even if some of those Android apps won’t be quite as pretty as Windows Phone apps (Nokia’s “fork” lets them change certain things, like the homescreen and chat and music apps, but not third-party apps like Facebook or Instagram). That’s what happened with WhatsApp: it may not be the prettiest chat app, but it works everywhere, on every device. And that’s more important.