The unlikely new Android underdog worth watching

You'd be forgiven if you hadn't given this company much thought yet, but it's time now to start taking notice.

Android Underdog
illustrade / JR Raphael

The official start of spring is right around the corner, folks — and here in Android Land, that can mean only one thing: We're officially in the thick of it.

Late February to early March is when most Android manufacturers start dusting off their superlative-generating garden gnomes and getting ready to launch their fanciest new flagships for the year. We saw the first signs of the season this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where Samsung unveiled its Galaxy S9, Sony touted its alphabet-soup-inspired Xperia XZ2 ("What should we name this thing, Jim?" "Uh...I don't know — throw a few letters and numbers together, oughta be fine"), and LG showed off its even more absurdly named LG V30S ThinQ (pronounced "thwonk," I think).

Oh, and Asus also pulled a pretty funny prank where it pretended to release a phone that copied the iPhone X's silly top-of-screen notch, almost exactly — for no apparent reason. Good one, guys.

Amidst all these attention-grabbing announcements, though, a far less familiar-to-Android name is emerging as the new Android player to watch. It's a company we all know well, actually, but one that's incredibly new to this particular domain.

I'm talking about Nokia.

Yes, Nokia.

The same brand once stamped on your snake-playing first cell phone is starting to make some seriously interesting waves in these here Android waters. The splashes had been attracting my attention for a few months now, truth be told, but this week's fresh momentum officially got me watching.

Why? Grab the nearest bag of tasty-flavored snack treat, and allow me to explain.

Nokia's inaugural Android year

I first started thinking seriously about Nokia while compiling data for my annual Android Upgrade Report Card. After seeing how pretty much every manufacturer outside of Google had let its customers down like never before with this year's Oreo rollout — and then looking back at four full years of data and realizing that most of them had been getting progressively worse with every passing year — I was feeling pretty bummed.

But then I came to Nokia. While not technically part of my analysis, given its still-barely-relevant status in the U.S. mobile market, I'd been keeping tabs on its progress as part of my ongoing research. And when I looked at it alongside the sad state of Android mainstays, I suddenly saw a spark of promise.

Nokia delivered Android 8.0 to its first-ever Android flagship, the Nokia 8, in late November — about three months after the software's arrival. But that's not all: In January, the company got Oreo onto its budget-level Nokia 5, 6, and 7 phones. Let me repeat that: Oreo, onto its budget-level phones. The types of devices that typically see upgrades ages after their release dates, if ever. And Nokia got Oreo onto them less than five months after its launch — before Samsung or LG had gotten the software onto their top-tier flagship devices.

Now, Nokia's on the brink of rolling Oreo out to its low-end Nokia 3 phone. And there's more: In mid-February, the company brought Android 8.1 to its Nokia 8 flagship — a second upgrade to a more incremental release before the big dogs had delivered first servings to any devices. Most Android manufacturers never even bother with multiple point-level releases at all, let alone provide them in a reasonably timely manner.

And there's more yet: When it comes to Android's monthly security patches — an area where most manufacturers are anything but upfront and transparent — Nokia is not only pushing updates out fast and frequently; it's also maintaining a web page where you can track each the status of each month's rollout for any particular phone.

That level of commitment and communication is simply unheard of — for OS updates, even, but especially for security patches. And all of that, still, is only part of the story.

The bigger Nokia-Android picture

Everything we've been discussing with Nokia's post-support success so far has been the result of the company's own independent efforts — with the same logistics and same set of tools every other Android manufacturer enjoys.

Now, Nokia has announced all of its Android products will soon be part of Google's Android One program — a setup in which the devices will use Google's "pure" Android software (which Nokia's phones basically had been already) and come with guarantees of reasonably speedy OS updates for two years from their release dates and timely monthly security patches for three. All Android One hardware is also certified by Google to ensure it delivers a "best-in-class experience" for the duration of its life — which, okay, whatever, but it's certainly not a bad bit of extra assurance to have.

According to a Nokia exec with far too many acronyms in his title for my comfort, Nokia will now be "the lead partner" for the Android One program. Think about that for a minute. If the company had been doing that well on its own, how well will it do with Google's support and official upgrade promise behind it?

I've said before that Android One was being positioned to become Google's missing piece of the puzzle — the Nexus-reminiscent answer to bringing diversity in both device style and price range to the "elevated experience" end of Android. That experience relates to the software itself (clean, simple, consistent UI with minimal bloat and service redundancy) as well as the timely and reliable ongoing updates. With a manufacturer like Nokia now entering the picture — and, from the sounds of it, being fully committed to the concept — the puzzle may finally be taking shape.

And the device selection certainly looks promising. Nokia's newly announced Nokia 8 Sirocco ($900-range, in U.S. dollars) is getting solid first-impression reviews. The more affordable new Nokia 7 Plus ($500-range, in U.S. dollars) is being described as a "Pixel 2 XL for the frugal." Even the new 2018 refresh of the affordable Nokia 6 ($300-range, in U.S. dollars) is scoring impressive initial marks.

Nokia has announced plans, meanwhile, to bring its popular Pro Camera mode, previously a distinguishing feature of the Lumia-line Windows Phones, to its higher-end Android devices. All in all, it's shaping up to be an intriguing proposition — something that stands out from the pack of Android device-makers and helps legitimize a whole new category of options.

Nokia's next steps

The big question now, of course, is when any of this will actually become relevant to us here in the ol' U. S. of A. So far, Nokia's presence in the States as an Android manufacturer has been limited, to say the least.

Elsewhere in the world, though, that's rapidly changing. In the fourth quarter of 2017, Nokia came out ahead of HTC, Sony, Google, Lenovo, OnePlus, and Asus in terms of global smartphone sales, according to a CounterPoint analyst. That same analyst says Nokia took the #3 spot in smartphone sales in the U.K. for the fourth quarter — and cracked the top 5 in Russia, Vietnam, and "most Middle East markets."

All in all, the analyst estimates this new incarnation of Nokia has grown into the sixth largest mobile phone brand in the world — in the span of a single year. Not too shabby of a start, if you ask me.

(And the company is still doing well in the feature phone department, too, by the way: According to an IDC analyst, Nokia became the second largest feature phone player in the world — and the largest player within Europe — within that same first-year span.)

All of this is to say there's plenty of momentum and plenty of reason to keep an eye on this inconspicuous-seeming corner of the Android ecosystem. For us here in the States, the real test is to see whether Nokia can manage to crack into the notoriously difficult U.S. mobile market and grab the attention of American phone-shoppers.

That aforementioned new Nokia 6 midranger appears to be the company's first stab at making it happen, with a U.S. launch reportedly set for May — and odds are, that'll just be the beginning of Nokia's attempt at expansion.

Keep your eyes peeled, kiddos. This could get interesting.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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