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Nokia X Marks Another Android Fork

by Abel Avram on Feb 25, 2014 |

This article overviews the latest most important Android forking attempts which offer developers new opportunities but also some challenges.

Nokia has announced on Feb. 24th “the first three members of our new family: Nokia X, X+ and XL” (YouTube video), suggesting that other members of the family might come in the future. Unlike other phones Nokia has made, Nokia X is built on Android Open Source Project and represents another fork of Google’s mobile operating system. The first to attempt this, Amazon chose Gingerbread (2.3) as the base for building a mobile operating system for their Kindle Fire range of tablets, and Nokia selected Jelly Bean (4.1.2), which is 16 months old.

Nokia promised that developers will need only a few lines of code to be added to the APK in order to make their Android applications run smoothly on Nokia X devices. While this might be true for some of the applications, this process won’t work for others. Since Nokia has decided to fork Android, they do not benefit from using Google Services which include APIs and back-end support for maps, cloud messaging, notifications, in-app billing, advertising, and the Play store, among others. While it can be done, porting applications depending on Google Services is not a trivial job.

Nokia will provide their own services - MixRadio, Here Maps, Navigation, Skype, OneDrive, Outlook.com, Bing – but using them instead of their Google equivalents requires more than simple changes to the source code. They will also curate the applications to avoid having their store shelves filled up with junk applications that do not do much but are easily ported. Another interesting twist is that Nokia X will include third party app stores, such as China’s 1Mobile Market with over 500,000 apps and the Russian Yandex Store with over 100,000 apps.

1Mobile enables Android users to download APKs and manually install applications. Automatic install/uninstall requires rooting. Nokia X will provide automatic install, but the applications won’t run properly if they depend on Google Services.

Yandex is an important search provider in Russia and has a different approach to forking Android. They are taking basic AOSP and adding a number of applications and services, including an application store, home screen and dialer, a browser, a maps library and cloud storage, building a firmware for device manufacturers which would like to make phones out of Google’s control. The advantage for manufacturers that choose this solution is getting a share of applications sold through Yandex’s Store. Yandex does not intend to develop their own version of Android, according to Gigaom:

We don’t have a plan to develop our own thread of Android — it is extremely expensive and has no strong reasons. We offer the layer on top of AOSP — system tools plus the stack of apps and services.

Are these Android forking attempts going to succeed? Are developers investing into porting their applications? The Amazon Kindle Fire experience which started in 2011 should have provided us with insight into how successful an Android fork can be, but while there are over 100,000 apps in the Amazon app store, the company has not provided any numbers regarding tablets sold nor app revenue. Will Nokia do better?

Following Nokia X announcement, Microsoft, which is in the process of completing their purchase of Nokia, has made it clear through Frank X. Shaw, Corporate Vice President of Communications at Microsoft, that their “primary smartphone strategy remains Windows Phone,” and their “core device platform for developers is the Windows platform.” So, we don’t even know if there will be another Nokia X phone in the future after Nokia changes owners.

In the meantime, Google is tightening their grip on Android by stopping developing certain applications and services which are included in AOSP, investing their development efforts instead into Google Services and Play Services, which are provided for free to device manufacturers but with many strings attached, including avoiding Android fragmentation through forking.

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