Why Microsoft probably won’t go through with Nokia’s Android plans

Nokia(s nok) really is working on an Android(s goog) phone, according to sources quoted by both The Verge and All Things D. The big question now is whether Microsoft(s msft), which is in the process of buying Nokia’s handset division, will kill the project.

The plan, according to those sources, is to use a forked version of Android that strips out the Google services, much as Amazon(s amzn) has done for its Kindle devices. According to Ina Fried over at All Things D, Microsoft may find this a more “palatable” approach to tackling the low end of the market than watching Google-ified Android phones continue to take over.

I’m not so sure that Microsoft will settle on this approach – in fact, I would say it’s a far less likely outcome than Microsoft killing the project once the takeover goes through in early 2014.

Nokia's "Normandy" Android phone, according to @evleaks
Nokia’s “Normandy” Android phone, according to @evleaks

Nokia’s current low-end play is the Asha line, which uses a variant of the Finnish firm’s old Series 40 operating system rather than Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform. When the takeover was announced, the companies said Microsoft would be buying the Asha brand as part of the deal, rather than licensing it as it will do with the Nokia brand. This gives Microsoft the freedom to kill the Asha brand.

Not that that’s what the companies said would happen. Instead, Stephen Elop said Asha “provides Microsoft with the opportunity to extend its service offerings to a far wider group around the world while allowing Nokia’s mobile phones to serve as an on-ramp to Windows Phone.” Going with forked Android, perhaps under the Asha brand, would allow Microsoft to do the same thing.

However, why would Microsoft do that? If anything, the company is currently trying to streamline its smorgasbord of operating systems to a lineup that will probably see the fusing of Windows Phone and Windows RT. It needs to do this for two reasons: consumer marketing and developer relations.

Developers don’t like fragmentation and consumers don’t understand it – heck, I’m a tech journalist and even I struggle to explain why Windows 8 and RT offer the same legacy desktop UI, but one runs legacy Windows apps and the other doesn’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s a lot easier for Microsoft to go to a developer and ask her to whip up an app for Asha-Android than to demand an Asha-Series 40 app, because she’s probably already created the Android app, making for easy porting. However, doing so would just entrench Android’s position even further, and would diminish the developer’s appetite to target the relatively small Windows Phone market.

Windows Phone is actually doing better and better each quarter, particularly outside the U.S. Why? Because we now have cheaper Windows Phones, notably the Nokia Lumia 520 (pictured above). Why would Microsoft not want to simply extend that trend, creating Windows Phones that push further into the low end of the market?

Yes, Microsoft can get something out of Android beyond the crazy $2 billion it rakes in each year from patent royalties, but is it worth the risk? I don’t think so – much smarter to grow the Windows Phone market and enjoy the fruits of patent shakedowns on the side.

Anyhow, just one more big decision for the incoming Microsoft chief to make, whoever that may be…