You may have heard the tragic story of the Microsoft Kin devices – a whole new mobile platform was launched and discontinued in just 48 days. Today we want to revisit one of Microsoft’s slightly more successful mobile projects. Granted, that’s one of the lowest bars for success to be cleared.
Do you remember the Nokia X line? No, not the current X-phones that are made by HMD Global. The original X-series started under Nokia and was announced by Stephen Elop at MWC 2014 in February. If that name set off alarm bells in your head, yes, this was during the transition of Nokia Devices & Services division to Microsoft.
The deal was signed in late 2013 but wouldn’t close until April 2014, after the Nokia X phones launch. The phones were a mishmash of several things, but they were the first Android-powered devices by the Finnish company, which spent years and billions of euros trying to use alternative platforms.
It started with the Nokia X and Nokia X+. They were basically the same device, but the X+ had more RAM – 768MB instead of 512MB – and came with a 4GB microSD card pre-installed. As you can already tell, these were not high-end devices.
They were interesting, though. They ran Android (4.1 Jelly Bean initially), but did not have access to the Google Play Store. Microsoft and Nokia wanted to build an alternative software ecosystem similar to what Amazon was doing with Fire OS.
Early in its life the Nokia X platform was known as the “Asha on Linux” project, which should tell you the target market for these devices. The Asha phones straddled the line between feature phones and smartphones – they were cheap, accessible, decently capable and were part of Nokia’s “next billion” strategy (the goal was to connect 1 billion people to the Internet for the first time).
The original Asha platform wasn’t much more powerful than Series 40 even if it ran WhatsApp, Facebook, Angry Birds and had a basic map app. The X-series was theoretically as powerful as any Android, as long as the software fit inside the limited RAM.
To be fair to Nokia and Microsoft, this wasn’t a low-effort project. They brought some of their best known apps – HERE Maps for navigation, the Xpress browser, the MixRadio music player, also Skype and Outlook for communication.
Besides the Nokia Store, X phones could also download apps from the Yandex Store. If you didn’t know that was a thing, don’t worry – most people didn’t either. Eventually (with version 2.1 of the platform) users were allowed to install the Google Play Store and Google Play Services.
Let’s have a closer look at the specs. The Nokia X featured a 4.0” IPS LCD (480 x 800) and was powered by a Snapdragon S4 Play chipset (dual Cortex-A5 1.0GHz CPU, Adreno 203 GPU). It had 512MB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage. On the back was a 3.15MP camera (480p video), on top a 3.5mm jack. The phone runs on a 1,500mAh battery. The X+ was essentially the same save for the extra RAM (768MB) and pre-installed microSD card.
Nokia X • Nokia X+
This hardware might sound familiar – it’s not far off the Lumia 520 that launched a year before. And we have fond memories of the 520 (yet we barely even recall the Nokia X, funny how that worked out).
The Nokia X (dual-SIM) launched in India at ₹8,600 (which equated to $140/€100 back then), costing more than the Lumia 520. It also hit Malaysia for MYR 400 ($120).
Since Nokia decided to use only the core of Android, it developed its own interface to go on top. You can read our review for more details, here we will just quickly go over the system.
Nokia X platform: Always On Display • Lockscreen • Homescreen
It featured the Fastlane home screen, borrowed from Asha phones. This may look inspired by Windows Phone’s tiles, but Nokia asked third-party developers to stick to Android design guidelines rather than trying to imitate Windows. You could place shortcuts and widgets on the home screen and resize them as you saw fit.
The actual Fastlane was on the left – this was a timeline that included everything from recent calls to recently used apps, new photos and incoming mail and so on. It was highly customizable and you could hide some of the things to reduce clutter.
The Fastlane interface was a timeline of recent events, files and apps
The X phones came with a Chromium-based browser that had tabs and was decently fast even on 3G. Facebook and Twitter apps were pre-installed as well.
The pre-installed browser could handle the modern web • Facebook and Twitter apps came pre-installed
This was the crown jewel of Nokia software – HERE Maps with offline voice-guided navigation. A dedicated SatNav unit could easily cost as much as the phone itself and there was less competition back then (Google Maps was yet to perfect offline operation and data was expensive).
Nokia’s HERE Maps offers offline voice-guided navigation for free
On the flip side, here is perhaps the worst part of the Nokia software – the app store. Nokia has had several app stores over the years (remember Ovi?), but none has ever achieved a fraction of the success of the Google Play Store.
The Nokia Store was a pale shadow of the Google Play Store
Nokia claimed that 75% of all Android apps are compatible with the X platform, developers just needed to submit their APK. The other 25% could easily be converted to work without Google’s Play Services (well, so Nokia claimed, anyway).
A few months after the X and X+ came the Nokia XL. Yes, it was larger, but with a 5.0″ display it wasn’t “XL” even by 2014 standards. The IPS LCD kept the resolution at 480 x 800px despite the longer diagonal. The was one upgrade, though, a 5MP main camera.
Wait, two upgrades – the XL had a 2MP selfie camera, the X and X+ had none. To be fair, the Lumia 520 didn’t have a selfie camera either. Yes, these were super cheap devices ($50-$100), but how much did a 2MP sensor cost, anyway?
We’re not sure how well the Nokia X series did. For a brief moment it looked like the X phones scored 1 million pre-orders in China. That turned out to be an error in translation of sorts – JD was running a pre-order campaign and offered a chance to win a free Nokia X if you clicked a button (which was free, no deposit necessary). So, a button was clicked 1 million times. How many phones were actually sold to consumers is anyone’s guess.
Confusion didn’t end there – people thought that Microsoft had killed off the X-series and thus that the Nokia X2 was cancelled. The X2 surprised everyone by going on sale in Russia and Pakistan for €115-€125.
The Nokia X2 was a mild upgrade over the original, not that we expected more after just a few months. It extended the screen to 4.3” (still 480 x 800px) and it included Nokia’s ClearBlack tech – a polarizing filter that massively improves sunlight legibility.
It also ran on more powerful hardware, a Snapdragon 200 – the two CPU cores were upgraded to Cortex-A7 (1.2GHz) and the GPU to Adreno 302. Even better, they had a whopping 1GB of RAM to play with (storage was still at 4GB). The camera on the rear stepped up to a 5MP sensor, now capable of recording 720p video. There was even a selfie camera, although strangely it only had a 0.3MP sensor (worse than the XL).
Nokia X2 Dual SIM
Even though it came out in July, just months after the March launch of the original models, the Nokia X2 also brought the next generation Nokia X Platform 2.0. And since Microsoft is Microsoft, the company announced that the original trio – the Nokia X, X+ and XL – will not be updated to 2.0. It’s as if it learned nothing from losing consumers over the Windows Phone 7 to 8 update fiasco.
The Nokia X Platform 2.0 was based on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, so people weren’t missing much. Still, it’s a kick in the teeth to hear that your phone, barely a few months old at this point, is already obsolete.
The Nokia X platform itself became obsolete just as quickly. Remember when we said that people thought that the Nokia X2 was canceled? That wasn’t speculation, Microsoft killed the program and laid off 18,000 people. CEO Satya Nadella said that future Nokia X designs will be repurposed as Windows Phone devices.
This was in July 2014, shortly after Microsoft completed its acquisition of Nokia’s phone division (which was renamed to Microsoft Mobile) and only half a year since the Nokia X platform was first announced. This demise wasn’t as swift as that of the Kin, but in a way it was worse – some fans had spent years wishing that Nokia would give up chasing the Windows Phone dream and just use Android. Okay, they were probably wishing for Android on a high-end device, but the X series was a start.
Later in 2014 came another Nokia-branded device running Android – the Nokia N1. We mentioned last week since this 7.9” slate was powered by an Intel Atom Z3580. It ran Android 5.0 Lollipop and it did have the Google Play Store pre-installed. It didn’t use Fastlane, however, instead it introduced the Z Launcher (more details in our review).
There was no Nokia N2, the division now under Microsoft control focused on Windows phones and tablets. We can understand why the leadership didn’t want any Android-based distractions since Windows Phone needed all the attention it could get.
Microsoft has a new Android phone these days, the Surface Duo. However, this time it worked directly with Google to incorporate some developments for multitasking on dual-screened devices into Android proper. As for Nokia, it is happy building 5G networking equipment and doesn’t seem in a hurry to go back to making consumer devices.
We don’t know what was happening behind the scenes, but the Nokia X and Nokia N1 do not feel like a coordinated strategy to adopt Android for low-end devices. Or a coordinated strategy of any kind. Things were really messy back then – internal competition killed MeeGo in the crib in favor of Symbian, which in turn was tossed out in favor of Windows Phone. With that in mind, it’s not too surprising that yet another competing phone project at Nokia floundered.