Hitting the Emerging Market Sweet Spot

Apparently, Microsoft (Nokia, really) WILL be releasing an Android phone.

Microsoft and Android

If there’s one thing that I know well, its mobile devices. I’ve said many times, I cut my journalistic teeth on mobile devices and mobile computing. It’s probably the one thing that keeps me in the game.  There are so many different kinds of mobile gadgets and mobile convenience gadgets out there. It really doesn’t get old.

However, the US tends to be a high-end device market. Most people – even some of the poorer citizens of the US – would be considered filthy rich in many of the developing countries in the world.  As such, low-end smartphones and other low-end mobile electronics, don’t sell here very well.  In the rest of the world, however, that’s where the money is to be made.  Chasing after those emerging markets is where many of the larger smartphone manufacturers would like to put most of their attention.

Apple would like to seriously get involved in the developing/emerging smartphone market.  It’s been difficult for them, however, as their products are mostly high end, and manufacturing costs for older iPhones haven’t really decreased.  The iPhone 5c was rumored to be a lower costing iPhone for developing markets, though that didn’t turn out to be the case. The 5c was meant as a lower costing iPhone for the US. Sales of that device haven’t lived up to its initial expectations. Apple is still looking for a solution for their ecosystem in this lucrative market.

Microsoft also seems to be looking long and hard at the developing/ emerging smartphone market.  They have also hit a small snag.  Apparently, Windows Phone designs don’t lend themselves well to lower end handsets. As such, the current scuttlebutt has Microsoft’s Project Normandy moving forward.

For those that may not know, Project Normandy is an effort at Nokia for an Android based smartphone.  The device is said to be a low-end replacement for the S40 smartphone.  The device will run a version of Android with most of the branded, Google functionality removed. The device is also rumored to be heavily skinned and won’t have the standard and now easily recognizable Android navigation buttons.  The presumption is that the device would run both Microsoft and Nokia branded services like, Bing, the recently rebranded Office Online, and perhaps Nokia Here Maps.

It’s obvious from the description above, that the version of Android is likely forked. It’s also going to be heavily modified. However, this won’t be the first forked, heavily modified version of Android that the world has seen.  Amazon has done exactly that with its Kindle devices for a number of years.  According to ABI, 25% of all Android devices are shipped with a forked version of the popular mobile OS.  Perhaps Microsoft can do its best to make a Windows Phone like, tiled interface for Android and then phase it out. That way, they get a foot hold into the market, get everyone used to the interface and then give themselves the design, engineering and manufacturing time to get it all together.

It’s not known how well the Normandy device will fare, internally, at least. As Microsoft isn’t too interested in putting money in Google’s pocket’s.  As such, Project Normandy may not make it as far as Microsoft Kin phones did a few years ago.  However, Project Normandy represents a sizable investment on Nokia’s part and may help bridge the gap until Microsoft can engineer low-end devices that provide acceptable performance and features on the low-end handsets that are popular in emerging markets.  They need to do something…or else they’re going to miss the entire party…again.

However – and this is the sad part really – Nokia’s, and Microsoft’s past behavior and current company policy don’t have me thinking the device will have much time on the shelf. Nokia spent a lot of time and money developing Meego before it killed the OS shortly after releasing it on the N9.  Microsoft spent millions of dollars developing its Kin phones, which by many accounts were supposed to set its mobile efforts aright.  That effort totally tanked shortly after release. The devices themselves were really no more than toys, or so most of the mobile community thought when reviewing them.

So here we are… full circle again.  The developing/ emerging market sector is difficult to successfully get into.  Android was able to do it well because the OS can run on just about any mobile processor you can throw at it, and as such, manufacturing costs are LOW.  The OS supports skinning and can function well with and without Google services built in.  Heck… Amazon ripped out Google Play and its ENTIRE ecosystem and substituted its own.  And that essentially proves it – you CAN engineer Google out of Android and replace it with your own set of mobile services if you wish.

Given all of this, the ONLY chance that Normandy has of staying on a shelf long enough for Microsoft and Nokia to get a well-functioning, low end Windows Phone out there is none other than Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella.  If he is truly going to initiate a changing of the guard at Microsoft and have the company really concentrate on devices, service and the software that powers them, he has to push old company politics, motivations, desires, etc. to the side and insure that the device isn’t killed before it had a chance to make a serious difference.  Nadella is going to have to make certain that this stop gap is allowed to fulfill its lifecycle purposes and initiatives and gives both Microsoft and Nokia the opportunity to get its own device out there to take its place, without anyone trying to tank it from the inside.

What do you make of all of this?  Is this a good or a bad idea?  Would you like to see Project Normandy get off the ground?  Should Microsoft try to kill it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the discussion area, below.  Tell me what you think!

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