MWC 2014 – Low End is the New High End

Header - MWC 2014MWC promises to be the sort of expo that delights and entices tech enthusiasts the world over. New gadgets, toys, gizmos and of course mobile devices are unveiled to the public, in the hopes of generating significant buzz and showing the world what the new big thing will be. Granted, it doesn’t showcase *everything*, and some of the more notable items missing will have their own events later in the year, but this event sort of sets the benchmark for what a good chunk of the year in tech will bring.

MWC 2014 is no exception. With new devices from Samsung, HTC, Sony and Nokia all on display, there has been a palpable sense of excitement leading to the event. There has been rampant speculation over what we can expect to see, with all sorts of rumours running wild. This happens every year, and every year we come out with a similar sense: interesting stuff, but not quite as revolutionary as we’d like. And there’s nothing wrong with this. Our expectations are always ridiculously high, much higher than what really makes sense for the evolution of technology.

This year, the two big flagship devices announced were the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Sony Xperia Z2. Both high end devices, designed to usher in the next wave of Android flagships. Everything else coming out this year will be measured against these devices. Essentially, this is the gauntlet being thrown down and everyone else needs to battle back with their offerings.

This year though, we are seeing a strong sense of evolution rather than revolution. Both devices feature spec bumps, some improvements, and some new features. These features aren’t quite new to high end smartphones, just new to their device line. Samsung is borrowing from the iPhone 5s and implementing a fingerprint scanner. They are also taking a page out of the Sony playbook and make their flagship dust and water resistant. Sony, is borrowing a bit from HTC and their One with a newer, more powerful speaker design. Both devices are sporting a considerably large overall device size, with a very modest increase to screen size.

But as interesting as these new devices are, they somehow haven’t quite captured attention quite the same way Nokia has. Nokia isn’t unveiling their latest Windows Phone Flagship. They aren’t showing the latest and greatest in smartphone camera technology. They aren’t bringing out the big guns at all. Rather, Nokia unveiled three new, decidedly low end devices. Not Windows Phone, nor the feature phone Asha line, they showed off a trio of low end devices running a forked version of Android.

Granted, rumours of such a thing happening have run rampant for a little while now, but to have these devices actually see the light of day, especially with the Microsoft purchase of Nokia just on the horizon, is fairly remarkable. These three devices not only are a bit of a surprise in their inception, but also in where Nokia has shifted some energy.

It isn’t any great secret that the high end smartphone market has become saturated. Heavily so. We are seeing fewer and fewer people buying their very first smartphone. We are seeing fewer and fewer people have no clue as to the differences between devices. While companies like Apple and Samsung are showing utter dominance at the high end, there exists a market where people don’t need all of premium features and shiny new tech. People looking for a relatively basic device, that handles their day to day tasks, and comes at low cost. A low cost that also doesn’t tie you to a carrier with a long term contract. Several companies, Nokia included, have seen success hitting these markets. But there exists an excellent opportunity to expand there, and it’s one that Nokia (and Microsoft) has put together an incredibly interesting plan of attack to target.

By forking Android, Nokia has lost the ability to use Google apps like the Play Store, Gmail, Google Maps, etc… What they have gained though, is a ton of control. They can take the AOSP code, alter it how they see fit, put together an Android experience that is tailored more closely to their WP offerings, and then use a combination of Microsoft and their own services to plug the hole left without the Google ones. No Gmail? Use Hotmail. No Google Drive? Use OneDrive. No Google Maps? Use HERE Maps. No Play Store? Use, and here is where it gets interesting, a newly minted Nokia Store, the Yandex Store, The Amazon Store, sideload the APK, etc…

The solution here is incredibly elegant. The phone is very low cost (Roughly $100-$150 outright depending on which of the 3 devices you fancy), introduces people to a different brand of services than they would normally see on an Android handset, but still offers the massive selection of applications that Android is known for. It sets up an introduction of sorts for future Nokia products.

Now, these devices aren’t being targeted at the Western audience. It’s unlikely that they will see the light of day in either the United States or Canada. But they are interesting almost as a proof of concept. Microsoft has really struggled in gaining solid traction with Windows Phone, with their greatest success being on the lower end of the handset spectrum. They haven’t really gained much there, essentially giving away their product to Nokia (before the purchase of the company). Ultimately what did they gain? Buy in for their cloud products mostly. Getting people to use things like Hotmail, or SkyDrive (now OneDrive) is the real benefit. And here they have an opportunity to expand on that. To give their users the chance to get tied into their services, even if they may like another platform better.

This also gives a slightly bigger separation between what we know of as Android, and what Android is without the influence of Google. Others have done it before, like Amazon with their Kindle Fire, and a variety of manufacturers in Asia, but Nokia being Nokia adds a certain extra level of… legitimacy, for a lack of a better word, to forked Android. Enough so that their introduction of three low end devices that will likely never see the light of day in the hands of Western consumers, has made about as big a splash, if not bigger, than the introduction of high end devices by the biggest names in the industry.


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