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Is it still a Nokia if it runs Google’s Android?

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Written by Kamil Arli

Forbes Columnist Ewan Spence published an article on Nokia.

The reaction has been positive, there is a buzz in the air, and there’s nothing coming close to rivalling the digital column inches that HMD has acquired with the reveal of its new Android-powered Nokia smartphones (although Samsung did try to roll a spoiler into play). The return of the Finnish name, the beloved mobile that defined a generation of phones and that ringtone, it’s all there.

SHOULD CAN THESE NEW DEVICES WITH GOOGLE’s FLAVOR OF ANDROID BEATING…

But should can these new devices with Google’s flavor of Android beating in their digital ‘manufactured in China’ hearts still be regarded as Nokia smartphones?

HMD's Nokia 6 (photo: Ewan Spence)

HMD’s Nokia 6 (photo: Ewan Spence)

My first Nokia – a phrase that will be familiar to almost every European tech writer – was the Nokia 2110i. It hooked into my Psion PDA through a specialised cable and allowed my to read, file, and type SMS messages on a qwerty keyboard with a full screen. Given the phone could hold a maximum of ten text messages in its memory, the offline storage of up to 2MB was almost encyclopaedic. Thanks to an ‘Email to SMS / SMS to Email’ gateway I was able to pick up and answer emails no matter where I was in the world.

THE YEAR IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING WAS 1996

The Nokia 2110i is clearly a Nokia, but running Nokia’s own operating system. My next Nokia was the 9000 Communicator. That was running GeOS, but again the device was clearly a Nokia device. The Symbian years cam next with handsets that started with the VGA camera of the 7650 and ending with the Nokia 808 and a monster 41 megapixel camera. As the Symbian platform developed, so did the handsets. All of them quintessentially Nokia.

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WINDOWS PHONE ARRIVES NEXT

Windows Phone arrives next, and although it is a ‘standard’ user interface over multiple devices, Nokia has experienced this with Symbian. The Lumia handsets quickly picked up the traits of Nokia devices and while the fall of Windows Phone also brought down Nokia’s mobile supremacy, the point here is not about the business angle but the sentimental angle. The software changed, the user environment changed, but there was something that always felt ‘Nokia’ about these handsets.

HMD's Nokia 5 (photo: Ewan Spence)

HMD’s Nokia 5 (photo: Ewan Spence)

Now we have the question about Android inside the new Nokia handsets from HMD. And if you’re honest you can see that while some of the answer is in software, it is not defined purely by software. Yes HMD is limited in what it can do with Android, especially as it is has signed up to use Google Play Services and the requirements that places on a manufacturer. So it has decided to deliver a consumer experience that it believes the market wants.

No changes, no tweaks, no bloatware, no additions. Instead the Nokia Android handsets will come with the purest form of Android using Google Play services. On top of this clean room approach, HMD has committed to providing the monthly security updates from Google over a Wi-fi connection, and to provide the feature updates to the Android OS for two years from the date of purchase of a new handset.

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The flavor of software inside the handset may change over the decades, but the customer support remained the same. HMD has pledged to continue that level of support. That’s what should make these devices feel like Nokia devices in software (although as with much of HMD’s plans, you can always talk good game at MWC, the implementation will be watched very carefully by the industry).

HMD's Nokia 3 (photo: Ewan Spence)

HMD’s Nokia 3 (photo: Ewan Spence)

Although the Nokia 6, Nokia 5 and Nokia 3 are all visually different phones, there is something in the angles, the curves, and the styling around areas like the camera lens that I feel at home with. The angular Nokia 6 with its no-nonsense approach is only a generation away from some of the later Lumia handsets like the Lumia 830 which was one of my favourite Windows Phone handsets. The additional curves on the sides of the smaller Nokia 5 echo the look and feel of Nokia’s ill-fated Linux-powered Nokia N9 (which itself was reworked to be the basis of the Lumia designs from the Lumia 800 onwards).

Then there’s the Nokia 3. As with the Nokia 5 and the Nokia 6 it manages to highlight the Nokia branding on the front and rear of the machine while echoing design cues especially around the camera housing. The soft curves on the edges actually make this handset feel more like one of Mophie’s recent battery packs.

With a full touchscreen, volume and power buttons on the edge, and a camera at the rear, there’s not a huge amount you can do to change the basic box shape, but there’s nothing generic about the three handsets on offer. The environment will have had an impact but add together the style cues, the materials used, and the design views that are in these handsets and there is a quality to these handsets. As the approach to software has evolved while retaining a Finnish attitude, so has the hardware.

HMD's Nokia 6 (photo: Ewan Spence)

HMD’s Nokia 6 (photo: Ewan Spence)

You’ll probably get the best answer by looking at HMD itself. Peppered throughout the company are former Nokia employees who worked Nokia handsets ‘back in the day’. Question alike ’there are hints of Fabula in here’ and ’this is a bit like the Lankku’ are met with a quiet understanding and acknowledgement. HMD CEO Arto Nummela was keen to stress to me the three pillars that have been used in the process (user experience, design, and real life experiences) to ensure these handset meet the expectations of consumers.

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The traits that drive the software are that of Nokia; the commitment to design and the return of some subtle styling are all from Nokia; and the attitude of the senior staff to push the envelope while remembering the heritage of Nokia is on display as well.

In a sense this is question that can never have a hard and fast answer. It is more philosophical than physical. For a few these handsets will always be impostors from a Chinese factor with a false flag brand on them. I think that would be unfair – HMD is simply following a model that is used by many manufacturers. In hardware, in software, and in approach, these handsets can draw parallels deep into Finnish technological histories.

It’s clear to me that these smartphones have earned the right to be called Nokia smartphones.

About the author

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Kamil Arli

Editor of DigitalReview.co. Digital Media Consultant

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