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New platform required a new version of Android

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) -- and customers of its newly acquired Nokia Devices unit -- are discovering first hand why branching Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android is no easy task.  Hot on the heels of good news -- a plan to upgrade the midrange Android-based Windows Phone clone, Nokia X to a second-gen operating system and improved hardware (more RAM, a faster Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) Snapdragon 200, etc.) -- Microsoft's Mobile Phones UX Design Studio chief, Yannis Paniaras, delivered the bad news.  Current generation Nokia X handsets will be left behind and may not receive the major update.
 
I. Nokia X/X+/XL -- No X2 Upgrade For You!
 
Mr. Yannis writes from Beijing, China:
 
[B]ecause of the necessary hardware upgrades, the Nokia X software platform 2.0 won't be available on Nokia X, Nokia X+ or Nokia XL. However, more updates will be coming to further improve the experience of those devices in the coming months.
 
In other words, Nokia X/X+/XL customers find themselves in a situation akin to Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 buyers.  And in a way, Microsoft's excuse has gotten even more tenuous, because we know the OS could theoretically run on the current lineup's hardware based on what we've seen with Android.
Nokia X screens
While the second-generation Nokia X2 OS will switch versions of Android (branched from v4.1.2 "Jelly Bean" rather 4.3 "Jelly Bean"), that alone doesn't explain why it can't install on the legacy devices.  The problem lies, it would seem, in the button selection.
 
The original Nokia X was a questionable idea on paper, and in the wild it has proven a frustrating mixture of well crafted, polished parts alongside painfully senseless design decisions.  
 
Among the senseless bits was the phone's button selection and means of handling multitasking.  Multitasking on the Nokia X was more or less broken. The "Fast Lane" UI element (Home Screen; swipe left from right hand corner) was not true multitasking in that it offered no way to completely close background running apps, and at times had trouble restoring state information.  This train wreck is fixable, thankfully, via a paid app that restores normal Android-style multi-tasking.



The downside is that you have to run the app every time you want to actually close stuff.  Nokia Devices has hinted that there's autocleanup to free up unused, backgrounded apps after some time.  But it's unclear how efficient these routines are, so users are left to fix this poor design decision, if they want to play it safe.
 
In another bizarre twist, the original "Normandy" family of Nokia X devices shared something in common with Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone -- they only had one button (back).  While Nokia (and by proxy Microsoft) seemed to initially view this imitation of Apple as "innovation", customers were swift to inform them of the folly of their logic was swiftly.  

Nokia X
Offering only one button wasn't the brightest decision from Microsoft/Nokia when it came to the Nokia X.

While the UI allowed a long-press of the back button as a home button stand-in, many users did not realize that option or had trouble executing the press, and begrudgingly resorted to tapping their way back to the home screen the slow way.

II. Botched and Broken, Nokia X Lacks the Buttons to Upgrade

With Nokia X2, Microsoft has moved towards a fix on both fronts.  First, it slides over the back button to allow Windows Phone style multi-tasking (via a long press).  Second, it adds a notification center similar to the just-added one in Windows Phone 8.1, to reduce the reliance on going to your homescreen to tweak a common setting.  Lastly, it adds a second button on the right -- home.




As Nokia X only had one button, its long press is already used as a Home button, so that nixes the multitasking.  Also, on the Nokia X2, the Fast Lane has changed sides, shifting to the left of the Home screen (accessed by swiping right from the left edge).
 
This shift allows Microsoft to put a Windows Phone-like alphabetical listing of all installed apps.  It was necessary to put it on the right in order to be consistent with Windows Phone.  But the tradeoff was that the Fast Lane changed sides, which would make it difficult to upgrade Nokia X devices (particularly given the much bigger roll of Fast Lane as the pseudo-multitasking solution on that platform).

Nokia X2
Nokia X2

Aside from the listing, about the only other thing added -- Notifications -- could certainly be ported, but would have a more limited set of ways to close (many people close notifications in Android via the Home button, although you can also swipe up or hit the back key).
 
The only remaining thing that the Nokia X2 platform hasn't added is a fleshed out search function.  Maybe next generation's Nokia X3 will add a third button (search), making it a true Windows Phone clone and enabling easy-to-access search.
 
III. The Path Ahead and the Price Question
 
In short, Nokia X devices aren't getting an upgrade yet as their hardware is a work in progress and a rather messy one at that.  However, Microsoft is fairly good with looking out for consumers.  Even with the dreaded Windows Phone 7 dead-end, users got a serviceable Windows Phone 7.8 update that contained enough of Windows Phone 8's features to keep the platform from feeling completely stale.   Nokia X will likely see a similar update, with part of Nokia X2's bits.
 
But the entire process begs a question -- why doesn't Microsoft just make a cheap Windows Phone?  Given how efficient Windows Phone is, particularly on its lower-end X00 (Windows Phone 7) and Lumia X20 (Windows Phone 8) devices, it's hard to believe it's not doable.  Currently Microsoft's low-end hardware in the "pure" Windows Phone track is the $159 USD Lumia 630 (Snapdragon 400; quad core).

Lumia 630
The Lumia 630 starts at $159 USD.

That spec suggests Microsoft could push even lower.  Microsoft does have one such handset -- the Lumia 530 ("Rock") planned.  It will likely be priced similarly to the popular Lumia 520/521, which retails for $110 USD.  It's expected to vie with Android's Moto E ($129 USD; 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 dual-core; qHD (960x540 pixel; 16:9) 4.3-inch display) for supremacy on the low end.

Moto E
The Moto E starts at $129 USD.

And that brings up the Nokia X2's greatest flaw -- price and positioning in Microsoft's lineup.  It stacks in at a svelte €99 ($135 USD) price point, the midway point of the previous generation, which was priced at €89 ($120 USD; Nokia X), €99 ($135 USD; Nokia XR/XL), and €109 ($150 USD; Nokia X+).
 
That's not terrible, given the hardware, but it's way too high.  The problem is really at that price the Nokia X2 is redundant with the Lumia 530, which should be out anytime now.  What Microsoft needs to do is shave roughly $35 USD off that price.
 
Ultimately Microsoft appears to be bringing its Android branch's UI in line with Windows Phone.  It's also slowly adding in features, perhaps relying on Google's work on the basic firmware side to avoid distractions and focus on tuning performance of ported versions of apps, capable of running on low-end processors like the Snapdragon 200.  Eventually Microsoft may kill the branch and replace it with Windows Phone, once the apps mature enough.  Or it may opt to push Nokia X even lower, displacing Asha.  
 
That's a logical path, but the fact that Microsoft is packing a dual-core processor (overkill) into the Nokia X2 and pricing it so high calls into question if that's the real plan.  And if that's not the plan, what is the plan?
 
That's a hard question to answer.  There are logical directions -- at least -- based on Microsoft's current strategy.  But Microsoft is not necessarily showing signs that it's following them.  We'll have to just wait and see how this one plays out.

Source: Nokia





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