Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Project Normandy - Will Microsoft ever let Nokia build an Android device?  A thought experiment

The million dollar question, “Now that they own Nokia, why would Microsoft let Nokia build the phone that forced them to make the acquisition in the first place?” We take a look at the current state of Windows Phone and Nokia's low end Asha to find the answer.

News about Nokia’s Android phone have been going around the interwebs for a while. In September, when news about Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia first hit the headlines, Nokia’s Android project was supposed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and forced Microsoft to buy Nokia to save Windows Phone.

In early December, The Verge reported that a Nokia project codenamed “Normandy” is “full steam ahead” according to multiple unsubstantiated sources along with a number of purported images of the phones courtesy of the Twitter leaker, EVLeaks. Supposedly, Nokia is building a phone running a “forked” version of Android. Some found the report hard to belief, including myself and Harry McCracken of Time. McCracken said:

Windows Phone has been so dependent on Nokia that you can certainly envision Microsoft freaking out over any sign of the Finnish phone-maker flirting with another operating system. The prospect might even have prompted it to make the acquisition sooner rather than later; if Nokia had wound up abandoning Windows Phone, it might have killed Microsoft’s mobile OS.”

Only a matter of days after The Verge’s report, Unwirednews, quoting the Chinese site C Technology, reported that Nokia had abandoned the plans to develop its own Android phone that was supposedly led by Nokia’s head of design, Peter Skillman. They  followed it up by saying:

“ that Nokia shareholders overwhelmingly approved the sale of Nokia mobile division to Microsoft, as did most of world’s regulatory agencies – the decision to abandon the project is the logical outcome. According to the terms of the contract, Nokia is not allowed to sell phones, smartphones or tablets under its name for the next 2 years. They could theoretically create a mobile Android device under a new brand, but given the level of competition in the market, competency, manufacturing, logistical and distribution base that is transferring to Microsoft, it makes little sense.”

To my surprise, a few days ago @EVLeaks posted another picture of the purported Nokia Normandy this time showing a snapshot of said device running its supposedly forked version of Android.

I was even more surprised when on December 8th, @evleaks posted the following screen shots:

Of course, screen shots like these are easy to fake so I will be honest with you from the start that I'm still not 100% sold on the idea that Microsoft is letting Nokia build an Android phone after spending billions of dollars to stop them from doing exactly that. For clarity’s sake, let's just say that that I am 90% sure that it will never happen.

However, since there is still a 10% chance of it happening, it might be a good idea to do a little thought exercise and try to figure out the reasoning behind such a decision if it would ever materialize.

Taking a look at the current state of living with Window Phones

Let’s start by examining the state of the OS Microsoft sought to save by absorbing Nokia in the first place.

To do that, I spent some time lurking in WP forums and I found threads such as this one.

The thread is filled with complaints/suggestions WP users have about the platform, thus it is a decent proxy to get an idea of how it must feel like living with Windows Phone on a daily basis.

There are hundreds of comments on the thread, if you have got some time to kill, it offers a good insight. Among the most common complaints are, the lack of a system wide file manager (many are complaining about how hard it is to find, open and share downloaded files), granular volume control (apparently, media and ringer volume are tied together in Windows Phone devices), the need for a centralized notification manager (a number of users complained that they often hear a notification beep and then spending 5 minutes or more hunting which apps actually triggered the notification), quick access to setting, as well as a better way to multi-task.

Triple Surprises ahead

The first is the fact that Nokia actually has a line of product that is currently in the market that solves many of these most glaring issues that Windows Phone users are currently facing.

The product is Nokia’s new Asha line. For those who are not familiar, in the past few years, the Asha line has been the name Nokia used for its low end devices. Similar to the way they use the Lumia branding for their higher end phones. Asha phones run on Nokia’s almost 15 year old Symbian S40 software and they mostly sell for under 100 USD.

The third surprise comes when you compare the purported Nokia Normandy pictures with another picture of Nokia’s latest Asha family. The physical similarity is striking as both have a single hardware button underneath the screen that functions as the back button. Even the shape of the marking indicating it as having a “back” functionality is identical.

The big question

By now you might be asking, “are you suggesting that Nokia is planning to put the UI from their dirt cheap feature phones on top of Android?”

If you bear with me, I shall explain why it may not be as crazy as it sounds.

As I have discussed here, and here , in an attempt to bring more of a smartphone like experience, last year Nokia totally revamped the user experience of their Asha phones. The makeover was so drastic that they felt the need to coin a new whimsical label and call it the Nokia Asha Platform.

The Nokia Asha Platform was built under Nokia’s head of design, Peter Skillman. He was
recruited by Nokia to work as Head of UX design for mobile phones, smart devices and Meego in 2010. Before joining Nokia, He spent 12 years at Palm. He worked for 2.5 years on WebOS user experience before Matias Duarte took over and let Skillman focus on industrial design. In that same yea,r we know that Duarte went to Google to work on Android.

WebOS’s UI can be seen to adhere to the principles of activity theory, in which the UI is designed to present the activities up front instead of the tools to do them. This is in contrast to the paradigm used in, for example, iOS, as Skillman himself stated in an talk he gave for Soapbox in 2010 right before he started working for Nokia. In the talk, he compared the iOS user interface to a house. Imagine each app as individual rooms in that house. Let’s say you are in the kitchen and you wanted to go to the dining room. In iOS, you tend to go to the front door by hitting the go-back-to-the-front-door-button (home button) and the re-enter the house to get to the dining room. This is unnatural and in contrast to the approach found in WebOS.

In WebOS, instead of jumping from one apps (tools to do activities) to another, users jump from one activity to another. The activities are represented by cards. As you can see here in HP’s WebOS design guidelines, apps can draw multiple cards in which users can do their activities.

These cards are stacked on top of each other, in which users can switch between them like they would a deck of cards, effectively allowing users to directly “walk” from one room (activity) to another. Furthermore, since apps are allowed to generate multiple cards if, for example,  the user wanted to compose two emails, the email app can create two cards allowing the user to jump between the two. This is an example of a user experience presenting activities front and center instead of the tools (or apps) to do them.

We can see WebOS’ activity theory approach  present in both Meego as well as post-Duarte Android. In Android the principles are evident in, among others, expandable and actionable items in the notifications shade, the decision to put the task switcher button alongside the home and back button in the on screen navigation bar, as well as how the task switcher shows snapshots of the last used apps in the states that the user left them.

To be fair, the idea to develop a mobile device UI based on the principles of Activity Theory had been making the rounds inside Nokia since 2007, way before Skillman joined them. From my perspective, what Skillman did was lead the work to merge these activity theory based ideas from both Nokia and WebOS into Meego’s UI.

The Meego UI had 3 homescreens, the notifications screen, application drawer, and the task switcher/activity screen. If you are inside an app, swiping horizontally across the screen will send you back to the activity screen with a snapshot of your recent activities stacked in a chronological order.. From this screen, you have the option to either jump to other open applications, swipe once to go to the app drawer screen or swipe twice and go to the notifications screen. This is how the UI works without dedicated navigation buttons.

Meego got cancelled when Nokia decided to put all its eggs in Ballmer’s basket. However many found that the principles behind Meego to be too good to just left to die. A group of former Nokia employees set up a start up and develop them further into what is now known as the Sailfish OS. Apparently those who stayed at Nokia had a similar thought. Led by Skillman, they put these activity theory based ideas into their revamped feature phone UI.

The Nokia Asha Platform UI has two homescreens. The first one is the app drawer and the other one is what Nokia refers to as the “Fastlane”. The Fastlane is a bit of a mash-up between Meego’s notifications and recent apps screen. The limited hardware that the UI runs on does not actually allow any real time multi tasking, but the Fastlane provides a way for users to jump directly to their recent activities by pinning those activities into the same pane as their notifications and social feed. Again, this is in line with the activity principles behind both Meego and WebOS, giving users a way to jump directly into different activities instead of merely switching between apps.

If you watch this video of the Asha phone in action, you might agree with me that we have to applaud Skillman and his team for being able to make the UI run smoothly on top of a more than a decade old operating system (S40) and very limited hardware.

How limited is this hardware anyway?

Well, the first phone with the new Asha Platform was the Asha 501, while Nokia would not reveal the details about its chipset, they did state that the phone had 64 megabytes of RAM. The last time I saw a phone with that much RAM was the Blackberry 9000 way back in 2007!

The Possibility

In the strategic rationale document released following the announcement of their intent to acquire Nokia, Microsoft stated that they wanted to make the Asha phone act as a springboard to prepare late smartphone adopters to make the jump to Windows Phones in the future.

However, as we have seen in the beginning of this article, the current Asha UI actually has a number of things that solved some of the most glaring issues that Windows Phone users are currently facing. It has a centralized notifications panel, access to quick settings, as well as the all important system wide file manager.

Thus there is reason to believe that some of the current Asha users might end up feeling more at home with Android when the time comes for them to make a step up the smartphone ladder.

Another reason is that last year, the Lumia 520 managed to enjoy a quick rise to become the world’s best selling Windows Phone. It also propelled WP to become the second most used Operating System in a number of markets as explained here. It achieved all that by combining respectable performance, a fluid UI, and a sub $200 price tag.

However, things will be different this year. Life with low cost Android phones no longer feel like living inside of a Fall Out Boy song, i.e. “it can’t get much worse VS no one should ever feel like”.

Silky smooth UI performance will no longer be an advantage that low end Lumias have over cost effective Android phones. Motorola’s $179 Moto G and Xiaomi’s $130 Red Rice will soon hit international markets and they are just a taste of what’s to come. Mediatek’s new affordable quad core chipset will ensure that high performing, affordable Android phones with last year’s high end amenities like HD and Full HD screens will flood the market. If Microsoft and Nokia do not come up with a new low end strategy to face this, they might loose the momentum they had enjoyed thanks to the Lumia 520 and ended up finding themselves inside a Fall Out Boy song, going down swingin’.   

Porting the Meego inspired Asha UI on top of Android and up-to-date hardware might not only provide an option for people graduating from current Nokia Asha phones but also give Nokia a fighting chance to compete with the upcoming crop of high performance low cost Android phones.

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