Could Nintendo really switch to Android?
Japan’s most respected business newspaper, the Nikkei Shimbun, today raised the possibility that Nintendo’s mysterious upcoming system — codenamed NX — may be based on Google’s Android operating system. The report is curiously sourced to a single anonymous insider, and takes the form of a column, not a typical news story; moreover, the Nikkei has a spotty record with Nintendo in particular.
But that doesn’t make the proposition any less fascinating, and it’s one I’ve been considering myself for some time. Although it would be an unusual move for the Japanese giant, which is famously hesitant to cede control over any aspect of its products, there are a lot of reasons why it might make sense — and why it wouldn’t contradict Nintendo’s own philosophy.
The most obvious reason for Nintendo to use Android as a starting point is that it would give the company a considerable leg up toward having its own credible, modern operating system. Anyone who’s used a Wii U will know how far behind Nintendo is in this area; the software is inexplicably slow, even after multiple updates and workarounds, and despite its tablet-focused approach, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the functionality of the most basic Android mobile devices.
Nintendo is arguably the best developer in the world when it comes to making video games, but like many of its Japanese contemporaries, has failed to adapt to a world where software platforms are now paramount. Android is the most-used operating system in the world today, and the parts of it most important and useful to Nintendo would be available for free.
Whatever your thoughts on the Android operating system itself, they wouldn’t be likely to have much bearing on any Nintendo implementation. The company's philosophy is to create unique console hardware as a canvas for its talent, and a move to Android at the system level wouldn’t lead to, say, Nintendo releasing its top-tier titles straight to the Google Play store for anyone to download, or relying on Google for media services. President and CEO Satoru Iwata has made it clear that the recent alliance with mobile gaming company DeNA is designed to drive interest in Nintendo’s dedicated systems, and announced NX the same day as the DeNA deal to push home the point.
So I would expect a Nintendo Android console to run a much more dramatic fork of the OS than something like Nvidia’s gaming-focused Shield devices, which have access to the Play store and other Google-powered functionality. Nintendo could build its own user-facing layer, along the lines of Xiaomi and Amazon’s Android-based operating systems, while remaining in complete control over what software sees release. There’s no reason why Nintendo couldn’t include quirky, original features like Miiverse or StreetPass on this hypothetical system.
But Nintendo ultimately wants more software on its platforms, having struggled to attract third-party content ever since the N64 in the ‘90s, and an Android-based NX could prove more appealing to developers than the often-awkward proprietary hardware. Although Amazon’s devices run Android at their core and should be easily compatible with most Android apps, some developers have decided against the seemingly simple task; the lack of built-in Google services means many apps have to implement Amazon’s own replacement APIs, which can be non-trivial. Many games and media services, however, only really need to run their own content, meaning that in theory there’d be fewer obstacles to getting them up and running on the NX. Nintendo would have to do some legwork, for sure, but a gaming-focused Android OS could afford to be less complex than a phone.
Android compatibility could benefit developers inside and outside Nintendo
And Android compatibility could benefit developers inside Nintendo as well. Iwata has long spoken of the need for Nintendo to better integrate its home consoles and handheld devices, and said early last year that the two teams were merged because technology had advanced to the point where both form factors could use the same architecture. The shared technology would let users run the same games at home and on the go, and allow for multiple form factors.
Iwata implied that the next system could retain some similarity to the Wii U in order to speed up its development; Nintendo’s latest home console runs on PowerPC architecture not known for its mobile friendliness, but Iwata allowed that a successor would simply need to "absorb the Wii U architecture adequately." However, given that system’s eventual resounding failure and Nintendo’s spectacular about-face on the issue of mobile, it’s just as easy to see the company deciding to work with a hardware partner on an ARM or x86 processor and using the widespread Android codebase as a different yet equally simple path. By the time NX is available, which I would expect to be well over 18 months away, ARM processors will routinely match and outstrip the power of the Wii U, making them more than suitable for the type of games Nintendo makes. Intel has made gains with x86 on Android, too, and would be worth considering.
I can’t say whether there’s any truth to this report or not, but I do think Nintendo could make it work. Imagine a suite of devices from set-top box to tablet to gaming handheld, all with input options designed by Nintendo. Each would run Nintendo’s own speedy operating system, yet would have access to countless compatible Android games and media apps. And each would play premium Nintendo games created specifically for the hardware and released nowhere else. (Heck, each could even play premium third-party games, too, in the implausible event that publishers would like to return to Nintendo platforms.)
In this scenario, Nintendo could preside over an ecosystem it controls while providing an easy path for others to join — all without compromising on what people have come to expect from modern hardware. Who wouldn’t want to buy into that? The days of Nintendo’s proprietary advantages are long gone, but in helping to democratize the design of computing devices, Android might just offer the unlikely assistance Nintendo needs to return to the summit of relevance.