How Nokia could help Microsoft with its Android smartphone

It would take an unconventional approach, but Nokia's Android-based Normandy smartphone could be good for Microsoft.

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An Android Nokia smartphone has attracted a lot of attention lately, projecting an image of a few renegade Finns standing up against the Microsoft empire. A Nokia-manufactured Android smartphone is back in the news again, with a report from the Wall Street Journal claiming Nokia would show this Android smartphone, code-named Normandy, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona later this month. Normandy is not a protest, though. Nokia’s culture is too consensus-driven and conservative to protest. It is, however, a test of Microsoft's mobile ecosystem, independent of Windows Phone.

There are two types of Windows phone buyers. Price-conscious, OS-agnostic consumers who want to pay nothing or near nothing for a smartphone, and the loyal Microsoft Windows fans and developers who want to apply their Windows skills to a mobile device. Microsoft reported last quarter that year-over-year smartphone sales were down 29%, and IDC reported this week that Windows Phone accounted for just 3.3% of the market. Measured in revenue and market share, Microsoft has not acquired enough of these consumers to matter in a world that is becoming mobile at a hyper speed.

Nokia can fix this by preloading Microsoft's proprietary apps on the Normandy smartphone in place of the all-pervasive Google apps in the Android ecosystem. This would work for Microsoft just as it does for Google. During the first use of a Normandy smartphone, the consumer will be asked to authenticate with a Microsoft email account, just like the Android requests users to authenticate with a Gmail account to personalize the device and Google’s proprietary apps. This would create a deep connection between consumers and their existing data hosted on Skydrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage solution.

What should matter more to Microsoft than winning the Windows 8 holy war is winning consumers over to use Windows contacts, navigate with Nokia Maps, communicate with Live Mail, search with IE Mobile, create documents and spreadsheets with Microsoft's apps, and store and share pictures, documents, and data on Skydrive, all instead of Google’s apps. This has proven effective in China, where Android smartphones ship without Google apps.

An Android Nokia smartphone, with its familiar OS and wealth of apps, could be a consumer acquisition strategy to connect consumers to the Microsoft mobile ecosystem. If it can rapidly scale this strategy, it will obtain the only part of mobile that can be profitable - using analytics to understand how, where, and how often its Normandy consumers use Microsoft’s apps, and what their search interests are. These analytics will improve Microsoft’s mobile ads on its own and other mobile ad networks. This advantage will extend to improved ad revenue beyond a consumer’s smartphone to any tablet or PC that he or she authenticates with the same Microsoft email account.

Even if Microsoft doesn’t preload the Google Play store on Normandy, Nokia’s app store will attract many developers. It’s much easier to convince developers to list their unmodified apps on another Android app store than to pay the same developer to port their apps to run on Windows Phone. The Nokia store could even surpass the Windows Phone app store’s total app count, making Normandy an attractive consumer choice compared to a Windows Phone. If Nokia chose to fork the latest Android version, KitKat 4.4, it would solve the problem of OS disparity on Nokia’s high- and low-end devices because KitKat is easily optimized for inexpensive devices with slower processors and runs just as well on more powerful smartphones.

As a mobile hardware company, Microsoft can only aspire to struggle for growth and profitability like other great device designers and hardware producers, such as HTC, without making a dent in the mobile ecosystem. Microsoft doesn’t have to control the consumer device OS market as it did in the PC growth era. It does, however, need a significant share of consumers to spend a significant share of their digital lives in Microsoft’s mobile ecosystem if it wants to be a relevant mobile company.

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