Has Nokia saved itself from irrelevance?

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We all knew it was coming, but it is nice to see it finally: over at the Mobile World Congress show in Spain, Nokia have lifted the lid on the “Nokia X” family of phones: the first Nokia handsets to run Android. Has Nokia just become relevant again?

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If you read any review of a Nokia phone from the last couple of years ago, chances are it’ll say “nice, solid hardware… if only there were some apps”. In fact – that’s exactly what I did when reviewing the Nokia 1520. This is because a couple of years ago the company decided to jump into bed with Microsoft and the lesser used Windows Phone operating system – rather than Android, which has now long been the standard for smartphones.

It’s a great shame too, as Nokia is great at hardware. The 1520 phablet feels great to use, and dare I say it, the Windows Phone OS is a pleasant experience too – the tiles work nicely and it generally feels very slick. If only there was something to do on it.

The switch to Android is significant because it solves the major app problem in one swoop. The new handsets will be able to run Android apps – albeit with some trivial modifications made by the developers. Like how Amazon’s Kindle Fire uses a spin-off version of Android devoid of all Google influence, Nokia’s flavour of Android is similar: there’s going to be a Nokia app store, and Nokia’s own maps will be used instead of Google and so on.

Even more interesting is that Nokia have apparently said that the platform will be completely open – enabling the ability to install third party app stores through the Nokia app store… and it sounds like they’ll be turning a blind-eye to anyone who wants to “side load” the usually restricted Google apps (Gmail, Google Calendar, etc) too. Whilst this could theoretically dent app store revenue (by totally controlling the Kindle platform, Amazon get a cut on every app sold), it could prove very attractive to anyone wanting a truly accessible phone.

The icing on the cake is that they’ve done quite a heavy mod on the standard Android look – customising it to resemble the Windows Phone operating system, complete with tiles.

The three handsets unveiled so far are definitely aimed at the lower end of the market. The Nokia X has a 4″ screen with a 3 megapixel camera – and the Nokia X+ has “more memory and storage”. The Nokia XL is to be slightly larger – with a 5″ screen, 5MP rear camera and a 2MP front-facing camera. Annoyingly Nokia have been very vague in their press notes about putting precise numbers on the specs – though we do know that they will be powered by dual-core Snapdragon processors. The X will set you back €89, the X+ €99 and the XL €109 – so all should be sub-£100 in the UK.

If this sounds a little underpowered and cheap don’t be surprised: Nokia are apparently positioning the Android line as a “gateway” that will entice users into the premium Lumia family, which run Windows Phone proper. Personally, I can’t help but wonder if they’re just hedging their bets?

The context for this move is interesting too: Don’t forget that Microsoft are currently working to close a deal to buy Nokia’s mobile division, so this seems like an almost counter-intuitive thing to do. Perhaps Nokia management has realised what a stinker Windows Phone is, and want to be able to make a convincing case for a full Android switch once the takeover is complete? If these phones prove successful, don’t be surprised if Nokia (or Microsoft) decide to bite the bullet and make the Android switch on all of their devices. It’d be an embarrassing few days, but might just save Nokia from increasing irrelevance.

James O’Malley
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