Desperate to make controversy out of the mundane, tech blogs exploded this past weekend with what has to be the biggest non-news story of the year: Nokia, one report claims, experimented with making Android devices. Shocking? Not at all. Of course it did.
On Friday, The New York Times reported that a team within Nokia had Android "up and running" on one of the firm's Lumia handsets this past year, hardly a Herculean feat of engineering when you consider that the innards of Windows Phone devices are 100 percent compatible with Android. This happened "well before" Microsoft and Nokia entered into negotiations for the former company to purchase Nokia's handset and services businesses in a blockbuster deal valued at $7.2 billion.
Related: "In Blockbuster Deal, Microsoft to Buy Nokia"
It's hard to imagine Nokia not at least experimenting with Android. After all, the company's comeback plan, centered on Microsoft's Windows Phone, had yielded some impressive and leading-edge devices but not the financial or market-share rebound that shareholders demanded. Only an irresponsible leadership team would have ignored alternatives.
I'd imagine that Nokia took similar steps before announcing its partnership with Microsoft in 2011. After all, the firm had to test the technical feasibility of its various options. But with Windows Phone and Android sharing a common hardware platform, moving back and forth between the two is relatively uncomplicated. Indeed, all of Microsoft's other Windows Phone hardware partners—Huawei, HTC, and Samsung—do exactly that, remolding existing Android handsets into Windows Phone models. All of them.
The tech industry's fascination with what should be seen as both obvious and common sense is curious to me. Some wish to commingle this activity with the Microsoft negotiations to purchase Nokia: Perhaps Nokia drove up the price by "blackmailing" Microsoft with the news that it had an alternative to fall back on if the software giant got cold feet. That was entirely unnecessary. The Android alternative was so obvious that Microsoft didn't really need the reminder: Obviously, Nokia could easily switch to Android if required. It's more likely that Microsoft, once again, found itself on the raw end of a one-sided deal, letting the remains of Nokia keep the HERE mapping technologies that it desperately wanted. Not controversial, I know. Just more likely.
Some have also pointed to the 2014 partnership expiration as a possible reason for this year's impetus for the purchase. That, too, is a red herring. Microsoft and Nokia have held on-again, off-again talks about a purchase since at least last year, and three years of close partnership have taught both companies about the pros and cons of such an arrangement. Instead, I think Nokia's inability to turn itself around financially is what triggered the newly desperate talks this summer. The firm did everything it could to stay afloat but could see where its current strategy was heading.
And that, I think, is the crux of the Microsoft/Nokia deal: A possible purchase that was always bubbling just below the surface suddenly gained alacrity when Microsoft's biggest-by-far Windows Phone partner threatened to irretrievably harm the market for these devices—not by switching to Android but by circling the drain financially. What would have happened if the firm responsible for 80 percent of all Windows Phone sales suddenly died? That market would die with it, and not even Microsoft could counter that bit of bad news. So it was forced to move proactively. Otherwise, Windows Phone would have died, too.
Finally, let's not forget that Nokia's choice to bet on Windows Phone was arguably the correct one. Nokia established itself as an equal partner with Microsoft, and the current-generation OS is infused with Nokia DNA. The firm never could have accomplished this kind of relationship with Android, and would have been an also-ran in a market that already can't sustain the number of me-too hardware makers that pollute it. Nokia's fall was perhaps inevitable, and I think the final tally on Stephen Elop's stewardship of the company is that he did the best he could with the situation he was forced to adopt. A sale to Microsoft is better than the fade to obscurity that is currently facing BlackBerry, like Palm before it.
Ultimately, the Microsoft/Nokia deal should be seen simply as unavoidable and predictable. It's the type of event that spawns dozens of conspiracy theories even though the evidence and logic of it all has been sitting in plain view all along.
By the way, there are renewed reports that Microsoft also experimented with "Surface phones," meaning in-house Windows Phone handsets. As with Nokia's Android dabbling, such an internal effort is simply common sense, a credible and necessary effort. But then, we've been hearing such reports for years. Point being, this isn't news either.