Nokia X Software Platform: An Android-Windows Phone mess (hands-on)

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/ Updated: February 24, 2014 11:23 AM PST

BARCELONA, Spain -- The new Nokia X Software Platform unveiled at Mobile World Congress 2014 is kind of like the wedding adage: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Here, the phone-maker borrows, bends, and recombines elements of Android, Windows Phone, and Nokia's own Asha OS as a response to a particularly sticky conundrum: how to make users' beloved Android apps run on a non-Google-looking phone, thereby avoiding a betrayal of partner-and-soon-to-be-parent Microsoft.

The result is an awkward amalgamation that doesn't do justice to any of the hybrid platform's component parts. For someone familiar with all three inspirations, the Nokia X OS mashup is an ill-fitting mix at best and an unholy union at worst.

I'm one for full disclosure here: this rundown represents my first impressions after a very short period with the Nokia X phone, but I'll update this after spending more hands-on time with the device here at MWC -- so my views are subject to change.

Start screen
First things first. The Nokia X OS does give you a Glance screen that beams out information from the lock screen, like the time and message alerts.

When you unlock the device, you're greeted by a start screen that looks like a Bizarro version of Windows Phone OS. To put it bluntly, the cheap knock-off visuals could use some work. Just because Nokia X phones are purposely low cost, it doesn't mean that the OS should have to look low-rent, too.

Blocks of tiles run together on the interface (though it looks like the Phone, People, and Messaging icons are static.) Even if you manually drag tiles down to create a gutter between rows, the effect is messy overall. It doesn't appear that you can separate the fused columns. On the plus side, some tiles are dynamic a la Windows Phone -- like the calendar, for instance -- and you can reorder them with a drag and a drop.

You can resize tiles, too, much the way that you would in Windows Phone, by pressing and holding the tile and selecting the larger or smaller of two sizes. You're also able to add widgets to your home screen, and create folders that looks just like tiles, a trick that Nokia pushed out in its "Black" update.

Unlike Windows Phone OS, there is no complete list of your installed apps that's separate from what you have pinned to the Start screen. With Nokia X, your tiled home screen is your app tray. This isn't a bad way to do it, but it does mean it could take longer to locate an app if you have a long list. Never fear, there's a file manager as well, which is another way to find and interact with apps.

Newsfeed
The second home screen on Nokia X Software Platform is more or less your newsfeed. It compiles recent app activity, calendar appointments, social messages, texts, e-mail, and all the rest.

If you know Asha, then you know this as the Fastlane. With all your feeds turned on, the Fastlane can get overwhelming in a hurry; luckily, you're able to toggles these feeds in the Settings. Fastlane icons look more like the Android thumbnails you're used to, and the idea is to give you one-click access to your favorite apps, which you can open or interact with from there. can go into Fastlane settings to customize which apps feed it

I like newsfeeds in general. HTC has one in Blinkfeed for its custom Android OS, and Samsung just implemented a swipe-up version with My Magazine in the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. If streams like this aren't for you, it's easy enough to ignore or effectively disable.

Quick access and notifications
Swiping down from the top of the screen to access the phone's command center is a pretty accepted Android paradigm. With Nokia X OS, too, swiping from the top lets you get at Bluetooth and Wi-Fi toggles, as well as your sound profile.

In addition to the newsfeed, you'll see select activity notifications in this space as well.

Hidden Android at the core
Tucked away beneath the Nokia X interface is the throbbing heart of Google's Android source code. To be specific, Nokia uses AOSP, or Android Open Source Project, which allows coders to use the files any way they please.

Opting for AOSP solves one problem for Nokia: giving people a way to play Android apps on Nokia phones (a concession, perhaps, to customer demand) while also loading up on Nokia and Microsoft apps and services.

So why not go whole hog with Android? As a Microsoft partner and soon Microsoft-owned spinoff, there is no way that Nokia's Mobile Devices team could have made an all-out Android phone filled with Google's trademark apps. As Microsoft is on the brink of taking over Nokia's hardware efforts, putting time and money into building up a recognizable Google experience doesn't make a lot of business sense.

As a result, Nokia X OS doesn't incorporate Google Now, Google Maps and navigation, Google Play services, or all the rest. Nokia won't stop you from downloading individual apps to support these features. In fact, any trick you can pull with Android, you should be able to do with Nokia X OS, albeit with the right files and codes. (More on this in the Apps section below.)

One thing to note is that the chipset in the Nokia X phone limits its Android version to AOSP 4.1, the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean equivalent, but if Microsoft continues to make Nokia X OS phones, that base Android version could also change.

Apps and services
Here's what you get as you look through the home screen where your app icons live: social networking titles like Facebook and Twitter, Nokia Here Maps, Nokia Mix Radio, Skype, Microsoft OneDrive for cloud storage, and Microsoft Outlook. There are all the essentials, too, like an alarm clock, file manager, and music player.

Your main destination for apps outside of the preloads is the Nokia store, which the company positions as a curated experience with apps that Nokia vets for quality and screens for malware.

In addition, apps in the Nokia store will integrate in-app purchases and carrier billing provisions for over 60 markets, both services that Nokia says are important for the customers it has in mind, typically people in growth markets who won't be post-paid subscribers or regular credit card users.

Nokia is a firm believer in letting you expand your appfolio beyond its own store offerings, just not in making Google Play store its main hub. Instead, geographically local app stores stand in, like 1Mobile in China and Yandex in Russia. Since this Android ultimately governs your Nokia X device, you'll be able to side load APKs as well.

Now, Nokia makes the Android app proposition sound so simple, but there is a catch for developers who want to shop their apps in Nokia's store, and this could affect app-lovers in turn. Nokia uses slightly different APIs for enabling carrier billing, in-app purchases, and notifications; developers will have to add some lines of code to their existing Android apps.

It doesn't sound like all too much trouble, but this whole situation with apps in multiple stores and developers that need to do a even a smidgen of work to port over apps raises a lot of questions about what the app response will be for developers and what kind of problem Nokia X OS really solves. If a major selling point of using Android is to make those apps easy to find and use, Nokia may have shot itself in the toe.

High hurdles ahead

My short time with Nokia X Software Platform bubbled up a lot of questions about day-to-day usability. How easy will it really be to find and install the apps I want, and how well will they really run?

Will customizing the Windows Phone Lite home screen be a huge time suck and turn off in the setup process, and will it gain enough additional functionality -- like voice dictation -- to even compete with low-cost Android and Windows phones? I'm also still trying to figure out if there's a reason, other than the app story, that motivated Nokia to slide down this rabbit hole.

When I think like an industry insider, which is the job I'm tasked to do, I tsk at the Nokia X OS's crisis of identity in trying to place a foot in three very different camps. On the other hand, if Nokia positions X Software Platform phones as inexpensive, beefed-up Asha phones that run your favorite apps, it stands a better chance at avoiding confusion.

Right now, the Nokia X phone is the only one to run this new platform mashup, but Nokia plans on a whole family of devices in the years to come. By then, the company may work out some kinks.

Yet there is a cautionary tale of another hybrid OS that leaps to mind, the platform running the short-lived Microsoft Kin One and Kin Two phones. These devices were a spectacular failure, aka costly social experiment, that were shelved entirely because the stunted software tried too hard to do too little.

Nokia, and its partner-parent Microsoft, should take note of history and bend over backward not to repeat it.

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