EXCLUSIVE! Nokia Phones *WILL* Have Android!

Sauntering down Oxford Street, Mauricio Reyes spotted Nokia's secret Android plans.

Nokia phones "running" Android

Nokia phones "running" Android

Is this just a hapless Photoshop mistake - or a sign of things to come?!?!?!?!

It's a daft graphic designer - obviously. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take the possibility of Nokia devices running Android seriously. Oh, don't get me wrong, Nokia will never ship and Android powered phone - they've invested too much in Symbian and MeeGo for that. But Nokia devices will run Android.

A few years ago, I coaxed my Nokia N810 into running a prototype version of Android - NitDroid. The project has been resurrected by Stephen Hyde at NITDroid.com.

This latest video shows the Nokia N900 running Android's FroYo.

Why Is This Useful?

Nokia coined the term "Mobile Computer" for its range of phones. Computers aren't hermetically sealed consumer devices. They allow the customer to modify both hardware and software. You would be understandably upset if the computer you bought last year wouldn't let you install the latest version of Windows, MacOS, or Linux. But that's the situation mobile phone customers are faced with today.

The Android G1 has been abandoned by HTC and T-Mobile - much to the chagrin of customers.
The HTC Hero has only been grudgingly updated to Android 2.1.
Nokia left the N800 and N810 to rot. Nokia regularly stops development of its "mobile computer" software even when the devices are in active use.

Mobile phone manufacturers exist to sell phones. They don't get any extra revenue for releasing new firmware. Indeed, the cost of developing, testing, and shipping new firmware is prohibitively expensive. Not to mention dealing with customer complaints when things inevitably go wrong.

We are finally in a position to change that mindset. Hackers (in the original sense of the word) are now able to create custom firmware for new phones. Take a look at the XDA Developer Forums. Almost every Android phone released can have an improved firmware running on it.

True, a significantly older phone may not have hardware capable of running bleeding edge code - but it's enough to give it a new lease of life.

I'd love it if Nokia updated the N95 8GB firmware. The hardware is still incredibly capable.

In these tough economic times, it makes perfect sense to focus efforts on software, rather than hardware.

Look at the PS3 or the Xbox 360. A single model with firmware updates to increase its functionality.

Rather than tooling up a factory for a 6 month run of hardware - phone manufacturers should be looking to keep churning out a limited number of models of high spec phones for years. As manufacturing efficiencies improve, the hardware becomes cheaper and - like the PS3 and Xbox - cheaper models can be produced.

The PS3 came out in November 2006. Nearly 4 years ago. Can you think of a phone released four years ago which is still in production - let alone receiving firmware updates? The original iPhone was released in 2007 - it got a firmware update earlier this year but won't be receiving iOS4. Also, you can't buy a new iPhone 2G. Apple aren't in the business of selling inexpensive hardware.

The Future

I predict - or rather, I hope - we will see the following pattern emerge. Either from Google or Nokia.

  • An insanely expensive and over-spec'd phone will be released.  I expect in the £500 - £1,000 range.
  • A public roadmap for its OS will be released - new features promised every 3-6 months.
  • A guarantee that official firmware development will continue for at least 3 years.
  • The OS will be sufficiently open to allow "homebrew" firmware to run.  Hackers will jump at it.
  • The hardware will sell - poorly at first.
  • As production efficiencies are found, the price will come down.  The hardware capabilities will stay compatible with older models.
  • The firmware will progress based upon consumer need, manufacturer desire and what hackers manage to achieve.
  • At around the 18 month mark, major new features in the firmware will be announced.  This keeps the MNO happy as they don't have to subsidise the cost of new hardware for customers coming to the end of their contracts.
  • At the 2 year mark, the next hardware revision will be launched.  More memory and megapixels - cheaper price.
  • If the hardware is still selling, expect others to follow.

The fly in the ointment for this is continuous manufacturer profitability.  Apple, I understand, gets a cut of call and text revenue.  Google gets a cut of apps sold.  Microsoft and Sony sell licences for releasing games on their platform.

Would this "super phone" have to sell firmware updates?  Would MNOs subsidise firmware rather than hardware?  Would customers part-exchange  an unfashionably old phone for the latest model?

Or will we be stuck with phones that are thrown on the scrap-heap by their creator in order to force us into buying the latest model?

One thing's for certain.  Where there are hackers - there will always be updates.

6 thoughts on “EXCLUSIVE! Nokia Phones *WILL* Have Android!

  1. Sounds great? The problem with that model is ghat most people buy their phones through a carrier, and don't want to pay full price up front (despite their contact essentially being a HP agreement).

  2. Haven't you more-or-less described OpenMoko's phone? It was hackable, expensive, aimed at developers, had poor take-up at first, and was critically dependent on a community of developers blossoming around it to turn it into something wonderful, yet out of either the maker's or the customers' control.


    My impression is that this wasn't a success. Perhaps Nokia or Google could do a better job, but no sensible service provider would trust any software company to deliver on a multi-year roadmap of features, and no sensible customer would buy based on a promissory note of wonders to come.

    Additionally, releasing a phone now that's designed to be good enough for use in three years time, in order to support the notion of continuously-added features, presumes that no new hardware will be needed (compass? HSPA+?), it requires the vendor to make the phone tough enough to survive three years of real-life abuse, and it presumes customers will be happy to have an unfashionable handset. A high-volume consumer market tends to work against all these presumptions, even if an extra (and up-front) investment in better hardware could be justified. Even in fiscally-prudent times, it's often still more cost-effective to buy a crappy handset every year and upgrade it, than it is to invest in a high-end handset and update its software for multiple years in the hope of keeping up.

    While I applaud the ideal of high-spec, long-lasting, updateable phones, I just think the business case is no longer there for the general phone market.

  3. The system you speak of is very much what Maemo was developing and what MeeGo seems to also be following. If the hardware is up to spec, releasing new software comes easily to a point, and then homebrew/community developement takes over. How this will work when carriers are onvolved and have their hooks into the OS/platform should be interesting, but has pretty much be the direction for open source mobility for a few years now.

    By the way, nice traffic inducing title.

    1. The problem with MeeGo is that Nokia continually abandon their communities. The N800 / N810 were thrown out the door. There are no significant updates for the N900 - and it looks like that may not get full MeeGo.

      Would you - either as a developer, early adopter, or consumer - risk going with a MeeGo device? I wouldn't unless Nokia made it very clear how long I could expect official updates for.

      1. Peter Ibbotson says:

        You've summed up Nokias problem. I have an N900 and it's probably going to to be the only "official Nokia" example of maemo 5 that ever exists. Not a good idea, I'd feel a lot happier about Nokia going forward if they said they'd do a version of meego for the N900. The UI might not be as nice given that the screen can't support multi-touch but I don't see why that should be show stopper.

        They also seem to be suffering from the OSS curse of never quite finishing the software before moving onto the next shiny development problem.

        Unless Nokia change their policy I know my next phone won't be a Nokia, currently I feel somewhat stiffed. WP7 looks likely but failing that it will probably be Android.

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