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Nokia and Google: Tech's most unlikely BFFs?

Nokia is so into Google that it promises Android phones "more pure and secure than Pixel."

Nokia's phones are pure Droid.
Katie Collins/CNET

It wasn't so long ago that Nokia and Google didn't move in the same circles, but oh, how times have changed.

These days they're bosom buddies, joined at the hip, BFFs -- at least for the foreseeable future.

Nokia famously bypassed Google's Android mobile software in favor of Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system at the start of this decade. The move didn't work out so well for Microsoft or for Nokia. Then last May, the Nokia brand was picked up by HMD Global, a Finnish startup made up of former Nokia employees.

Those employees have a second chance to make Nokia phones a success, and they're embracing Google and Android in a big, big way.

At its press event at Mobile World Congress on Sunday, HMD showed off three Nokia-branded, Google-powered phones.

"Finally we have Android in Nokia," HMD Chief Executive Arto Numella said onstage, presenting the Nokia 3, 5 and 6.

HMD isn't just another Android phone maker, Numella said in an interview a day prior to the launch.

"We have a very deep partnership with Google," he said. "Very deep," he repeated, with emphasis on "very."

Nokia isn't the first company to buddy up with Google to show off the very best of Android. Google has worked with LG, Huawei and Asus to build Nexus phones and tablets that have served as models for the latest flavor of Google's mobile software. Google went so far as to buy Motorola's phone division in 2011, before selling it to Lenovo in 2014.

Right now, though, Google has eyes for Nokia.


The Nokia 6 is the closest thing HMD has created to an Android flagship.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The bromance between the two is playing out in tabloid-worthy style. Jamie Rosenberg, Google's vice president for Android and Play, joined HMD onstage Sunday to endorse the new Nokia phones. And the two companies have posted social media tributes to each other. On the MWC show floor, a giant pixelated display showed "Google" spelled out using moving graphics from Snake, the classic Nokia phone game.

Still, Nokia was not the only company to be honored with a Google executive's stage visit at MWC. Nokia shared that privilege with LG and Huawei. And not everyone is convinced that Nokia and Google are in an exclusive relationship.

"Of course Google will be keen to work with HMD Global given the widespread brand recognition, but the focus will remain firmly on the phone makers that are driving the most volume -- and primarily with Samsung," CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood said.

Purer than Pixel?

One thing does that does set HMD apart from rivals is its approach to Android and its commitment to updating the software in a way that Google has wanted from phone makers for years.

So confident is Numella in the partnership that he promises Nokia phones will bring an experience "even more pure and even more secure than Pixel," referring to the Google-made phone that came out in October and costs $400 more than any of Nokia's phones.

Just like with the Pixel, HMD's phones will run a version of Android that's as pure as the day it was born in the Google developer labs. Nokia phones will receive monthly security updates and any other software updates as soon as they become available, Nummela said. This is in contrast to rival manufacturers such as HTC, Samsung and LG that put their own twists on Google's software and, as a result, struggle to push timely software updates to their customers.

You might be wondering how Nokia will make its phones "more pure" than the Pixel. According to Juho Sarvikas, HMD's chief product officer, this is based on the fact that the Pixel doesn't always get the most polished version of Android straight away. Google uses it to test out features before they launch in full. Nokia phones, on the other hand, will only get the full, finished version of these features, and it'll get them first.

"We'll spearhead with Google their latest services, so we'll help them iterate, we'll help them test, we'll help them get consumer feedback," Sarvikas said.

Hardcore Android fans will no doubt be pleased to see more phones available that promise regular software updates, but that does put Nokia in the somewhat awkward position of being in direct competition with its new best friend.

"Google has made no secret of its in-house ambitions with Pixel and this will also remain a key focus with regards to the purest form of Android," said Wood.

If Google wants to keep expanding its hardware business, then a Pixel-versus-Nokia rivalry could eventually push the two into frenemies territory. But given that HMD is just getting started on its path to bringing Nokia back to relevancy, this relationship has a lot of room to blossom.

Now playing: Watch this: Nokia 6 is pure Android Nougat in a sleek aluminium body

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