Nokia’s bastardized Android could be brilliant … if it would just commit

Android Nokia X editorial

What do you do when you aren’t ready to give up, but your rival is more than 25 times more popular than you? If you’re Microsoft, you throw a costume party.

Yesterday, Nokia (Microsoft is purchasing its handset business) took the stage at Mobile World Congress to unveil three new Android phones under the Nokia X name. When we first heard news of this, we threw our hands in the air and began dancing … until we heard the details. The fun always ends in the details. The Nokia X phones do run Android, but only technically.

The fun always ends in the details.

As the Darth Vader to Microsoft’s Emperor Palpatine, Nokia has taken Google’s open-source Android platform (it’s free), gutted it, replaced all of Google’s services with Microsoft’s, and rebuilt it to look like Windows Phone. The only problem with this new battle station is that it’s not fully armed and operational. Instead, Nokia and Microsoft are too scared to go for it and fire on Dantooine. 

Here’s what’s wrong: Nokia only views Android as a gateway to Windows Phone, so it won’t properly invest in these promising new phones. They have some great interface ideas, but they’re still half baked, and they won’t get better until Microsoft changes its attitude.

‘Here comes the airplane! Nom nom nom’

“The Nokia X will be a feeder system for Lumia,” Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said when the device was announced. “We’re introducing the next billion people to Microsoft.”

The first major problem with this plan is that Windows Phone doesn’t need a “feeder.” It may need feeding tubes and an IV with its three-year losing streak against Apple and Android (Microsoft has a smaller market share today than it did when Windows Mobile’s biggest competition was BlackBerry), but there are already cheap Windows Phones. The Lumia 520 retails for $80 these days – less than these three Android X phones – and it’s a great device.

But the Lumia 520’s low price doesn’t matter because most phone buyers don’t want Windows Phone right now. It has a weak reputation, it still has some problems that need fixing, and it doesn’t have all the apps we want. But neither will the Nokia X, so what problem is Nokia solving?

No man’s land

Because Microsoft has gutted the Google out of Android, the Nokia X won’t have the Google Play Store, meaning people who buy these phones won’t have the million apps Google has collected. Instead, the Nokia X will be like a half-way house: Nokia will operate its own Android app store and try to convince developers to convert their Android apps to work with Microsoft services. Supposedly, about 75 percent of apps work on a Nokia X without any problems, but that remaining 25 percent will have to alter their apps to get them to work. If they bother submitting their apps to Nokia’s app store at all. Smartly, if Nokia doesn’t have an app you want (and this will happen a lot), it will send you to third-party app stores to download them. Again though, the app selection on a Nokia X device is far weaker than Windows Phone right now, and probably will be for a while.

The second major problem with treating Android as a “feeder” is that it can never be all that good; Nokia and Microsoft must keep it from outperforming Windows Phone so users have a reason to “upgrade. They’re already hobbling it in some ways. It runs Android 4.1, a nearly two-year-old version of the OS. The interface looks intentionally uglier than Windows Phone. There’s no reason why Nokia couldn’t have mimicked the Lumia Live Tile grid look more closely. Instead, if you sat the Nokia X down next to any Windows Phone, that device will suddenly look more appealing because it’s like what you have, but more responsive and prettier. But looks have never held Windows Phone back. It’s always been gorgeous.

With the Nokia X, Microsoft has hollowed out Android to wear it like a cheap Halloween costume.

Microsoft already makes a lot of money from Android because of the patent deals it has with major manufacturers, and if it has filled Android with its own services, isn’t it OK that Windows isn’t at the heart of it? Microsoft does call itself a “devices and services” company these days. It’s too bad that its too scared to take that idea to the next level.

Microsoft is treating the Android-based Nokia X like Harry Potter’s adopted parents treated him. It’s stuck in a small room under the stairs labeled “cheap.” But the Nokia X could be a wizard; it could do wonders for Microsoft if it could just go to Hogwarts. If Google truly is Voldemort in this extended metaphor, Microsoft’s version of Android may save us all.

With the Nokia X, Microsoft has hollowed out Android to wear it like a cheap Halloween costume. What it should do is look in the mirror, realize how good that costume could look, and wear it every day. Amazon proved that Android can be a platform to pimp your own services with the Kindle Fire, and it could work for Microsoft, too.

The world is changing, and there is no money in selling operating systems anymore. Microsoft’s decision to slash some Windows 8 licenses by 70 percent is proof: The money is in the devices and the services. Microsoft will soon own Nokia, and with Office and Bing, it can more than compete in the services area.

So why is it so stuck on treating Android like a gateway drug? Just sell people the drug they want and you’ll do better, Microsoft.

Product Review

Samsung's Galaxy S10 phones are its most refined yet. Be prepared to pay up

Samsung has unveiled its lineup for its most popular smartphones, and it includes the Galaxy S10 and S10 Plus. The two flagship phones boast hole-punch cameras, fingerprint sensors embedded in the display, and beefier batteries.
Mobile

The 2-year-old Nokia 6 is now being updated to Android Pie

Android 9.0 Pie has been released. But is your phone getting Android 9.0 Pie, and if so, when? We've done the hard work and asked every device manufacturer to see when their devices would be getting the update.
Product Review

Nokia’s 3.1 Plus is an affordable phone that’s crippled by its camera

The Nokia 3.1 Plus is HMD Global’s first smartphone to be sold by a U.S. carrier in-store. It’s only available on Cricket Wireless right now, which underlines its focus on affordability. Should you buy a phone this affordable?
Wearables

To be blunt, the Vuzix Blade smartglasses just don’t cut it

We tried out the Vuzix Blade to find out if it’s worth shelling out $1,000 for smartglasses. Are these augmented reality, Android-powered glasses really ready for primetime or just an expensive gimmick that no one really needs?
Mobile

Samsung goes big with the next-gen Galaxy S10 5G smartphone

Samsung has announced a whopping four new Galaxy S10 devices, from the low-cost S10e to the triple-camera S10 and S10 Plus. But it's the Galaxy S10 5G that steals the show as it's among the first 5G-ready smartphones to hit the market.
Mobile

Folding smartphones hinge on the success of the Samsung Galaxy Fold

The Samsung Galaxy Fold has arrived, and it goes on sale soon. Folding out from a 4.6-inch display to a tablet-sized 7.3-inch display, this unique device has six cameras, two batteries, and special software to help you use multiple apps.
Mobile

Adobe Premiere Rush CC is coming to the Samsung Galaxy S10 this year

The Samsung Galaxy S10 boasts a number of hardware improvements over previous Samsung phones, but it also offers a few software improvements too. Adobe Premiere Rush CC, for example, is coming to the Samsung Galaxy S10 later this year.
Mobile

Samsung Galaxy S10 vs. S10 Plus vs. S10e vs. S10 5G: Which should you buy?

With four stunning Galaxy S10 phones to choose from, Samsung is bombarding us with choice, but which one should you buy? We compare the S10, S10 Plus, S10e, and S10 5G in various categories to find out exactly how they differ.
Wearables

Samsung's new Galaxy Watch Active can track your blood pressure

Looking for a new fitness buddy? Samsung just launched the Galaxy Watch Active and the Galaxy Fit, two new wearables with a raft of fitness-focused features that'll keep you moving and get you down the gym.
Mobile

From folding phones to 5G -- here's everything we saw at Galaxy Unpacked

Samsung's Galaxy Unpacked event treated us to a real parade of technological excellence, from folding phones to new fitness wearables. Here's everything we saw at Galaxy Unpacked on February 20.
Mobile

Google’s radical Gmail redesign is finally rolling out on Android

Google is slowly but surely giving its apps a refresh, modernizing them and ensuring that they're easy to use. The latest app to get a redesign is the Gmail app for Android, which has been redesigned with a few tweaks.
Mobile

The best Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus cases to protect your $1,000 phone

Can't get enough of big phones? The Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus is absolutely up your alley. But it's still fragile, and damage is easily gathered through normal life. Protect it with the best Galaxy S10 Plus cases.
Mobile

Samsung Galaxy S10 vs. Galaxy S9: How much better is Samsung’s new flagship?

You'd naturally expect the Samsung Galaxy S10 to be better than last year's S9, but just how do the two phones differ? We break down the specs and compare Samsung's flagships in various categories to pick a winner.
Product Review

The Galaxy Watch Active is the right size for you, no matter how big or small your wrist is

Launched among a massive array of other new products, the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active could easily have been missed at Galaxy Unpacked 2019 -- which would be unfortunate. This is a sensibly designed, correctly sized smartwatch suitable for…