Perspective: The fate of Nokia's Android phone depends on Microsoft

Latest analyst thinking on 'Normandy': It runs a cross of Meego-Linux-Android and can use Android apps

Analysts are pondering just what Microsoft might do with the Android-variant smartphone Nokia has under development.

With Microsoft finalizing its $7.4 billion purchase of Nokia's devices and services business even as it aggressively peddles its own Windows Phone OS, some analysts and mobile experts figure Microsoft will never let the 'Normandy' phone see the light of day.

Others argue that Microsoft needs an inexpensive phone that would slot in between the higher-cost Lumia line and the low-end Asha line.

Unnamed sources have told All Things D and The Verge that the Normandy device is indeed under development at Nokia, with a possible release in 2014. A photo purporting to be the phone appeared on Twitter in November, leaked by @evleaks. But very little about the photo suggests it is anything other than a Nokia Lumia, since it features the classic Lumia rectangle design with sharp corners. Nokia refused to comment and Microsoft didn't respond to a request to comment on Normandy.

Normandy phone
According to evleaks, this is the purported Normandy phone Nokia is working on. (Image: evleaks)

One of the more interesting theories about Normandy comes from Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi. She thinks Normandy is probably not an Android phone, per se, but more of a cross between Meego, Linux and Android that can run Android apps. The Asha OS has similarities to three OSes used at various times by Nokia: MeeGo, Symbian and Maemo.

"Everything soon with Nokia will be done to Microsoft's benefit, either from an ecosystem perspective with Windows or an apps perspective," Milanesi said. "So it could be conceivable that if Windows Phone cannot get to the lower price points that are necessary in emerging markets, Microsoft could use a Linux-based OS [like Meego] but still under the Asha brand and run Android apps on it.Ultimately, though, whatever Nokia might have been working on will need to pass the thumbs-up test from Microsoft now."

Milanesi's theory rings true because there are about 1 million apps in Google Play but fewer than 200,000 apps in the Windows Phone Store. Also, it makes sense for Microsoft/Nokia to hold onto the more familiar Asha OS brand rather than move to Android.

Various reports citing unnamed sources have said that Normandy will be an Android variant in the vein of the Amazon Kindle Fire. Like Amazon, many smartphone and tablet makers customize Android with different user interfaces and unique services. Google created its Nexus line of smartphones four years ago, followed by Nexus tablets, in reaction to those customizations and to show what a more pure Android experience would be like.

Milanesi's suggestion that Normandy could survive after the Microsoft acquisition, albeit in a somewhat disguised state, stands in direct contrast to other reasoned viewpoints.

"I don't think Microsoft will let [Normandy] see the light of day for fear of jeopardizing what little support they have for Windows Phone," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

Windows Phone recently topped about 10% of market share in the five largest European markets, far behind Android and iOS. But it still has only about 3.5% of the important China smartphone market and remains just shy of 5% in the U.S. market, according to third-quarter figures from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech.

Even though Moorhead said Microsoft won't allow Normandy to move forward, he said it could prove valuable for Nokia in selling phones at lower prices in emerging countries. "Android phones cost less and have a lot more apps with many more ways to get to those compatible apps," he said. "But strategically, [development of Normandy] could send a negative message to Windows Phone developers that Microsoft isn't committed to the WP OS."

Another analyst, Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates, agreed with Milanesi that it's possible to customize Android to be Asha-like, allowing users to benefit from access to Android apps. "Having an Asha layer on top of a smartphone OS like Android could accomplish a way for Nokia/Microsoft to make a 'compatibility mode' for older Asha apps, which makes some sense for upgrading users," Gold said.

"If Microsoft wants to play in the overall phone market, it needs a low-end play to compete, and Windows Phone can't compete in the low end, especially in emerging market where the Chinese makers like ZTE and Huawei are becoming dominant and almost always run on Android," Gold said. "Microsoft will have to adopt a low-end smartphone strategy to be successful in the phone business, and Windows Phone can't scale down enough to provide the many resources required, such as CPU, memory and more."

Gold said an Android approach might be tough for Microsoft to stomach, but it's still necessary. "Microsoft might have to hold its nose and allow a modified Android to run on a Nokia phone," he said. "They might even try to make the user interface look more like Windows Phone and can leverage the large number of Android apps to make the phone relevant in the market."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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