The Journal reported today that Nokia is expected to launch its first Android phone at Mobile World Congress this month. My first response to this was to disregard it, as this rumor has been floating around for a long time. But the Journal has a pretty good track record on this kind of stuff. After re-reading the article closely, I now believe it is pretty likely to be true.
My second response was to think “wow, what a mess” Microsoft has on its hand. But again, after the second reading, I have re-assessed my initial opinion slightly. I think that Nokia pursuing a pure Android strategy is a recipe for trouble. They no longer have the scale they once did, and competing with Samsung and the Mediatek ecosystem will be incredibly costly. But from the Journal piece, it does not sound like ‘pure’ Android is the strategy. The article implies that Nokia will fork Android the same way Amazon has. And instead of referring people to Amazon or Google, they will re-skin Android to promote Microsoft and Nokia services. Default search would be Bing, default maps would be Nokia Here Maps, and default Mail would be Outlook instead of Google Mail.
So let’s assume the Journal is right, and this is the strategy, and not just some legacy product waiting to be killed after the merger integration is complete. What does this say about the industry.
First, it says that Android now has a lockon the low end of the market. No one is even trying to compete down there in the land of sub $200 smartphones (or wherever the reputed Nokia device ends up). If it costs a few hundred million dollars to build and maintain a smartphone operating system (OS), no one but Google can afford to do that anymore. That is a pretty shocking truth. Even if it is something we all suspected for years, I do not think anyone expected Microsoft to be the one to drive that truth home.
Second, this says that there may just be a viable path for re-skinned Android versions, and that Google really is losing control of the ecosystem. If Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba and now Microsoft are all adopting this strategy, you have almost all of the major Internet companies pursuing this strategy. That may be enough critical mass to warp the laws of physics in some way.
However, there is one big hole in this strategy – apps. How do all these forked Android versions attract developers? True, most developers can readily port there main branch Android apps over to these alternative app stores. But what happens when (not if) Google adds some great new feature to Android, and then waits six or nine months to release the code base? That is a long time for app developers to ignore the other app stores in favor of Google Play.
The risk to Google, as I have argued elsewhere, is that consumers may not know the difference. There is already so much fragmentation in the Android app-universe that consuemrs have a hard time understanding the difference in Android versions and OEM customizations. But if you ask people at Android about this, they all seem pretty confident that they can keep the OS advancing fast enough to cause real problems for these Android forks.
Of course, there are other problems with forking Android. Ars Technica had a great post on this topic earlier in the week, but if you read that, you also have to read the response from a member of Team Android to that piece. Both make for some interesting reading. I will try to tackle these in a future post of my own.