Lessons from Nokia's bow to Android should resonate with smaller OS providers

Can a hybrid like the Nokia X be instructive to Mozilla and others?

BARCELONA -- Nokia's three new Android smartphones -- the X, X+ and XL -- could prove to be the biggest lesson for the smartphone industry at the 2014 Mobile World Congress.

Nokia abandoned its Symbian operating system three years ago, then started making Lumia devices running on Windows Phone. On Monday -- just weeks before Microsoft formally absorbs the Nokia hardware business -- Nokia finally relented to making forked Android phones, a clear bow to Android's 80% global market share in smartphones.

Nokia is keeping true to some of Nokia's and Microsoft's services, such as Skype, OneDrive and Outlook.com as a hybrid device, but there's no question that Android is what really matters in the X line.

What does Nokia's move say to all the other smaller and newer OSes vying for attention in the global smartphone ecomomy? With Android number one, and iOS number two, Windows Phone is barely above 4%, and that's with the considerable marketing of Microsoft behind it. Windows Phone devices have reached 10% or more recently in some European countries, but even that success has been slow in coming.

Most analysts believe that Windows Phone benefited from the demise of the once powerful BlackBerry OS. While BlackBerry still has the interest of some IT execs in large and regulated enterprises, it is clear that the security and productivity message inherent with BlackBerry, and others, is not enough to assure an OS's market strength.

Given how Windows Phone and BlackBerry have done in recent years, what can become of a host of newer mobile OSes like Mozilla's Firefox OS, Canonical's Ubuntu and Jolla's Sailfish? What about the Tizen OS, which seems good enough for the two new Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatches, but apparently not Samsung's smartphones.

There were 1 billion smartphones shipped in 2013, so maybe the smaller OS providers with their small operating costs can survive a good while.

Mozilla CEO Jay Sullivan told reporters on Sunday that "it's not enough to have two OS's [ Android and iOS] in the world dominating." As he said this, he proudly held up a $25 Firefox OS smartphone running on a chipset from China-based Spreadtrum.

Ben Wood, research director at CCS Insight, said sales of even a few million smartphones a quarter would constitute a "roaring success" for smaller OS's like Firefox.

But Nokia (and it seems Microsoft as well after Nokia is absorbed) may be on to something: Keep your own identity with phone services but bow to the Android OS, even if forked. Maybe the market will appreciate such a hybrid phone as a compromise.

Nokia's strategy -- which isn't all that different from Mozilla and others -- is to sell the X phones at affordable prices, reaching a category of buyers who previously only carried a feature phone.

I they sell a few million a quarter, that might be enough to matter.

This article, Lessons from Nokia's bow to Android should resonate with smaller OS providers, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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