Is it time for Nokia to consider Android?
In the last week, Microsoft has dropped two huge bombshells on the mobile industry. First, it was their entry into the tablet market with the Microsoft Surface. A successful exercise in industrial design, the Surface is the first real entry into this burgeoning market to compete with the venerable Apple iPad and go toe-to-toe in terms of build, material quality and innovation. Microsoft even out-smarted Apple's Smart Cover with their Touch and Type Covers. Our own Joshua Topolsky -- regularly berated (without cause) by comment boards for his anti-Microsoft stance -- said, "One thing seems certain... With the Surface, Microsoft just started writing its next chapter... I'm excited to see where the story goes." And it's true. Any reasonable technophile should be excited about what Microsoft is doing in this space.
The second bombshell happened yesterday at Microsoft's Windows Phone Summit, where they introduced Windows Phone 8. Replete with new features that should bring the platform on par with (and in some cases, succeeding) the current market leaders. From the list of enhancements, it sounded like Microsoft was paying attention to their users and bringing those features that would reward the Windows Phone faithful. A new customizable Start Screen, in that Live Tiles could be resized to the user's liking. On the hardware side, support for multi-core processors, three different screen resolutions (up to 720p), NFC and full SD support (for, of all things, installing apps). The list goes on: Skype and VOIP integration, Nokia Drive running Maps with turn-by-turn navigation... What some might deem a brilliant move is Windows Phone's migration to the NT kernel. WP8 will share a Windows Core with Windows 8.
But with the good news comes some bad news: Existing Windows Phone devices will not be updated to WP8. Cue the Debbie Downer music! They even had some old WP7.5 device on hand running an early build of Windows Phone 7.8. Yes, the Lumia 900, unveiled in January 2012, all of a sudden, is "old." A beautifully-made, polycarbonate, masterpiece that, not since the iPhone 4 was introduced has beheld such popular accolade for its design, is old. Poor Nokia. Obviously, Nokia PR executives were out in force, attempting to damage control the news, stating, "I think that ultimately your typical customer probably isn't all that aware of this upgrade thing."
Nokia's Kevin Shields feels "really good about recommending the [Lumia 900]." But he kind of has to, doesn't he? You see, behind the scenes, Nokia is hemorrhaging. Maybe that's too harsh a word, but Nokia's in an uphill battle. It's shares are down a whopping 80%. Stephen Elop is cutting and dropping costs like a bad habit. Nokia is set to lay-off another round of employees to the tune of 10,000 staff members. Three senior executives have recently stepped down. Nokia has also abandoned many of its projects, including "Meltemi" -- the low-cost, Linux-based OS that would eventually replace the S40 and supposedly provide budget handsets with smartphone capabilities. "Meltemi" was supposed to be a part of the MeeGo development program, but Nokia stopped active work on that as well. To make matters worse, earlier this year, Samsung overtook Nokia to become the world's largest maker of mobile phones. To underscore how monumental that is, Nokia took that top spot and held it for the past 14 years. Samsung did this very much on the strength and momentum of the commonly regarded mobile OS known as, Android.
So, where does that leave Nokia? As it stands? Nokia's got all its eggs in the Windows Phone basket. You remember that basket don't you? That's the basket that recently went from 7.5 to 8 and isn't looking back. Sorry, Lumia 800 and 900. So, is it time for Nokia to consider Android as an ancillary arm of their smartphone division? Who knows, maybe that ancillary arm becomes their primary? Let's consider it for a moment:
It's not an unfamiliar thought, particularly among other Verge-ans. If you've listened to any of the podcasts or read any of the member comments,it's a technophile's wet-dream to see Android in its latest dessert fare sheathed and put into the gorgeous body of a Lumia 900. Beautiful software mated to attractive hardware. It's the iPhone 4 conceptual design times 1,000. It's Carl Zeiss optics meets zero shutter lag. It's ClearBlack meets Holo-themed... it's BlackHolo -- it draws you in and you can't escape!
Let's not forget that Google would have much to gain from this partnership as well. Remember, the #2 in the manufacturing, behind Samsung, is Nokia. Nokia would be one of Android's largest partners. With Android's footprint globally, it's an easier play for Nokia to regain their footing in the US market, as well, in markets where they're fledgling. Here's the fact: the longer Nokia holds off on joining the "Android Army," it isn't the likes of Samsung, HTC and Motorola that Nokia has to worry about. It's the China Android upstarts and the dwindling presence in Europe that Elop is well aware of. Android's market share is in the neighborhood of 60%, while Windows Phone (typically linked with Windows Mobile) is clinging to single digit shares. How long do you stay on a boat that's taking on water while ignoring the neon-green colored rescue boat that's sailing past you?
Stephen Elop is a smart, articulate guy. His sincerity is effusive. If you've ever listened to him do an interview, you'd believe everything he's saying. I remember listening to him do an interview late last year, talking about the incredible partnership that they forged with Microsoft in delivering the stunning Lumia 800. He gushed about how the industrial design of the Lumia is complemented by the intuitive and aesthetic Metro UI of WP7. In late-2011, if you listened to that interview, you would have bet the farm on Nokia reversing Windows Phone's fortunes. "Nokia is going to put WP on the map," many said. And yet after two quarters, the story is about the same. For those who opted to get the Lumia 900 because of its design and give WP a shot, you're probably outraged. Saying your Lumia 900 isn't going to get upgraded is like finding out that Droid X2 ain't going to get Ice Cream Sandwich (okay, maybe not that bad). I don't know about you, but when I look at that picture at the top of the page (as bad of a PhotoShop as it is), I can't help but think it feels right. Hindsight is always 20-20, but it's hard for me to believe that Elop reasoned for WP7 and not Android because it gave them "the opportunity to lead," and a "faster path to the United States marketplace." His concern at the time was the "difficulty differentiating," because the "commoditization risk was very high."
For Elop and Nokia's sake and for fans of competition, I think I can say, "We hope he's right." But as it stands, it would have been a beautiful marriage, Nokia and Android. I wonder if Elop would have reconsidered if, looking back now, he knew that all Nokia needed to do to differentiate itself from the rest of the Android OEMs was just doing what they're doing now: making absolutely, stunning devices like the Lumia. Guess we'll never know...