In early 2014, Nokia was on the verge of merging with Microsoft. Led by then-CEO Stephen Elop, the company had switched between a variety of strategies in a last-ditch effort to maintain its market share.
One of those strategies was the decision to launch a range of budget phones with a split version of Android. Yes, the Nokia X and Nokia XL, which launched back in 2014, were technically the first Nokia Android phones – three years before HMD Global’s Nokia rebooted.
The Nokia X series spawned five different phones and variants. At the start, Nokia presented the Nokia X and X Plus. The only difference between them was that the Plus variant had an additional 256MB of RAM for a total of 768MB. In addition, the company presented the Nokia XL, which had a larger display, 768 MB RAM and a larger battery.
See also: The best Nokia phones
Later in the year, Microsoft released the Nokia X2 with a faster Snapdragon 200 chipset and 1GB of RAM. This phone turned off the single capacitive button and added a home button in addition to the back button. In the meantime, China received an updated version of the original Nokia XL that now has 4G capabilities, a faster chipset and a total of 1GB of RAM.
The series started at a time when Nokia had finally stopped making high-end Symbian hardware. The company’s range comprised a selection of Windows Phone and Series 40 devices as well as feature phones. Let’s take a closer look at the two Android curiosities.
Bring a knife into a shootout
When Stephen Elop took over the management of Nokia in 2010, he oversaw the transition from Symbian to Windows Phone in order to keep up with the high-end segment. While this transition failed spectacularly for its own reasons, Nokia has also wavered in the all-important entry-level segment.
The Finnish company’s entry-level hope was based on the Asha series of feature phones that run on an outdated Series 40 operating system. In an ironic twist of fate, the series name came from the Hindi word for hope.
Nokia’s entry-level 40 series just couldn’t compete with Android options.
Nokia’s Asha line of products competed with full-blown Android smartphones, and a phone based on the Series 40 was by no means going to cut the mustard.
Enter the Nokia X and XL. Nokia’s entry-level phones have copied the styling of the fabulous Lumia range of Windows Phone devices and confused it with the affordability of the Asha range.
The original pair was priced at slightly pricey Rs. 8,399 (~ $ 120) and Rs. 11,489 (~ $ 150 USD) in India. Not exactly cheap for phones that are closer to high-end feature phones than an actual smartphone.
To add consistency across the portfolio, Nokia even incorporated some of the best parts of the Windows Phone user interface to make the Nokia X range truly unique. Sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Nokia X: A Short-lived Experiment
The Nokia X-Series was introduced with an entirely new interface paradigm that sought to bring the minimalism and ease of use of Windows Phone to an affordable price.
The hardware featured a unique design and used bold colors. It had a minimalist industrial design that was both comfortable to hold and surprisingly sturdy. Sure, polycarbonate phones have been around since then, but few have matched the superb hand feel of the high-quality plastics Nokia uses. It was really a game changer.
Too many hardware concessions have been made to match the price.
Since this is a budget phone, concessions have been made to keep up with the price. At a time when a decent 8-megapixel camera was standard, the smaller Nokia X came with a miserable 3-megapixel camera with no autofocus. Meanwhile, the larger Nokia XL used a not-so-great 5MP sensor.
The 4 and 5 inch displays weren’t anything special, and Nokia added support for an Always On Display mode, which was lovely.
On the performance side, the less the better. The Snapdragon S4 Play chipsets weren’t a powerhouse to begin with, but the Nokia X and Nokia XL’s 512MB and 768MB of RAM added insult to injury. Competing devices like the Samsung Galaxy Core had a faster chipset and more RAM for a similar price.
Suffice it to say, the performance here wasn’t the strong suite and the phones stuttered even during regular operation.
A future-oriented user experience
It wasn’t all bad, however. Under the direction of Peter Skillman, former Palm’s WebOS design director, Nokia has created a surprisingly future-oriented user experience.
Known as Nokia X Platform, Android’s icon and widget based user interfaces have been deleted and replaced with a Windows Phone-like tile-based look and feel, making the phone accessible to first-time users. In fact, there was no app drawer at all.
A quick swipe left or right brought you to the Nokia “Fastlane” hub. As a unified center for all notifications and multitasking, it was a fantastic addition that again focused on usability.
With only a single capacitive button on the front, the Nokia phone was easy to use in one hand, and it mostly succeeded. Like the often forgotten Nokia N9 based on Meego, the phone even has social sharing built right into the user interface.
Continue reading: The rise and fall of Android’s greatest competitors over the past decade
However, Nokia made the fatal mistake of shipping the phone without support for the Google Play Store and Services. Unlike Samsung’s TouchWiz or other smartphone skins of the time, the Nokia X platform wasn’t just a skin. Instead, it was developed as a forked version of open source Android and was a fully customized version of the Google operating system.
The phone was closely tied to the Microsoft ecosystem of services like OneDrive. As the world evolved into an app-centric smartphone experience, the Nokia Store was a revamped version of the Ovi Store on Symbian phones.
A curated list of apps compared to the millions of apps on the Play Store. You can imagine how that played out.
The lack of Google Play services and the reinvention of the App Store was another daring move in 2014.
The company tried to recruit developers for the platform, but the entire effort was short-lived. By July 2014, just under six months after launch, the Nokia X-Series was finally canned. By then, Microsoft had completed the acquisition of Nokia and went all-in on Windows Phone.
The beginning of the end
The death of the Nokia X-series also marked the end of Nokia’s Android ambitions. The takeover by Microsoft was completed by April 2014. A quote from Joe Belfiore before MWC 2014 was correct. Microsoft wasn’t enthusiastic about Nokia’s use of Android and quickly completed the program. Microsoft continued to use the Nokia branding on Lumia hardware until October 2014, when it switched to Microsoft Lumia. The transition was now complete.
Under Microsoft, the company shipped a range of affordable Windows Phone-based phones with limited success. While nothing particularly wrong with the hardware and the Windows Phone user interface is still a breath of fresh air, Nokia’s problems have remained the same across generations of hardware – a serious lack of app support.
Because of the poor app support, there were only limited buyers for Windows Phone devices, which in turn was little incentive for developers to jump on board.
At a time when smartphone developers were getting their hands dirty in the successful iOS and Android app ecosystems, there was simply no room for a third horse in the race. Microsoft tried to put money into the problem by funding the development of key apps like Facebook and promoting alternatives to key apps.
However, you cannot enforce an ecosystem. Without the apps, buyers simply wouldn’t come and sales dried up. With limited users, there was no incentive for large developers to spend time and resources creating popular apps for Windows Phone devices.
The writing was on the wall, and the Lumia 650 was the last phone launched under Microsoft Mobile in 2016.
Microsoft has written off $ 900 million on its investment in Nokia and announced it will end its mobile hardware business the following year.
The Nokia brand name returned to the smartphone space under the supervision of HMD Global. The company introduced its first Nokia Android-based smartphone, the Nokia 6, in 2017. Nokia tried to carve out a niche for itself based on an off-the-shelf Android build and clean design.
If you look at the lackluster recent versions like the Nokia 5.3, the company might be wise to find a niche and get back to where it all started. A phone that offers great build quality, a focus on usability, and a forward-looking view of software.
Hey HMD, how about a reboot of the Nokia X series?
This is the eighth post in our Did You Know That series, where we dive into the history books of Android and consumer technology to uncover important and interesting facts or events that have been forgotten over time. What would you like to see from us next? Let us know in the comments.