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Could Nintendo take the Android plunge?

It would be crazy if Nintendo wasn't considering the Android architecture; but it's not like it'll make any difference to the NX' functionality either way

It's a hell of a headline to set the gaming world alight; "Nintendo's next console will be an Android device". That's probably why it's worth saying up front, in defence of the original Nikkei article which sparked this week's drama, that that wasn't the headline at all - nothing like it, in fact. The original headline read "The great battle Mario is jumping into: Nintendo-DeNA tie-up in depth"; a cut-down version of the article was later published in English, simply titled "Nintendo dives into smartphones". The comment about Android was practically a throwaway line, attributed to an unofficial and unnamed source.

Is Nintendo going to use Android in the announced but as yet entirely mysterious NX console? I don't know. You don't know (unless your IP address is in a very select handful of buildings in Kyoto). I'd wager that nobody outside a core group of Nintendo staff, a few at Google and perhaps a half dozen at DeNA know. It's entirely possible that the decision hasn't even been finalised yet, rendering much of this discussion moot.

There are two things, however, that need to be said about this whole fracas. Firstly; I would be genuinely shocked if Nintendo is not at least considering Android as a basis for its next platform's OS. It's a pretty mature OS which the company is free to use without permission or payment; its core elements are open source, with good development tools available. There are other options out there; Nintendo could build something around Linux, or around FreeBSD (which appears to be the basis for Sony's PS4 operating system), or it could pay to license a commercial operating system. Alternatively, it could continue with its approach thus far of developing an entirely proprietary OS for its new hardware, an effort which is now so akin to reinventing the wheel over and over again that it would be deeply worrying if an alternative was not being sought.

"Should the console use Android, it will be purely as the "skeleton" of the OS; the interface, the software, everything above those architectural bones will be custom-made by Nintendo"

So, while I'd wager that the Nikkei's report that Android will be the Nintendo NX' OS is probably very premature, it's also entirely plausible that it's based on some genuine if misinterpreted intelligence; that the company is working with Android and at the very least trying it out. Again, the truly eye-roll inducing headline in this day and age would be "Nintendo's going to start from scratch and develop a proprietary OS for NX", not "Nintendo's looking at well-established OS architectures for NX".

Secondly; whether the NX uses Android or not probably doesn't make the slightest whit of difference to how the console functions. You're not going to boot up into an Android menu system. You're not going to have the Google Play store as an icon on the console's homepage. You're almost certainly not going to be looking at Google Maps or even browsing in Google Chrome. It's notable that the Nikkei article simply says "Android will be the OS" and doesn't go into many of the usual newspaper article assumptions about how that means Nintendo NX owners will be able to use all the functions of an Android smartphone, suggesting that the authors know perfectly well that they're talking purely about an architectural decision, not one that will have any direct impact on the user experience.

There's no way that Nintendo, originator of the "Nintendo Seal of Quality" and the whole console business model built around controlling who releases software on your platform, is going to allow the Google Play store onto the NX. Should the console use Android, it will be purely as the "skeleton" of the OS; the interface, the software, everything above those architectural bones will be custom-made by Nintendo and the closest a user will ever get to noticing the "Androidness" of the system will require a reading of the EULA or the system's deeply-buried About page.

This is not without precedent; Amazon's Kindle Fire devices, for example, run a heavily modified version of Android which boasts an entirely new user interface and lacks access to most Google services and storefronts. Google has fought a rearguard action against such heavy modifications by slowly moving core elements of its OS out of the open source codebase and turning them into closed-source apps; this is unlikely to bother Nintendo, which doesn't want Maps, or Gmail, or Chrome, or Google Now; it wants a stable, well-known and mature operating system kernel to build a console OS around.

The precedent for this, too, is well-known and deserves a close look before anyone gets wide-eyed with the notion of Nintendo building their own version of the hapless Ouya. As mentioned earlier, the PS4 runs a version of FreeBSD; Sony has been branching off Unix-like operating systems for its consoles for several generations, with both the PS3 and the Vita also based around FreeBSD forks. The Xbox One, famously, runs a version of Windows complete with the high-end Hyper-V virtualisation system, but the Xbox family has been Windows-based from the outset; the original Xbox ran a heavily modified version of Windows 2000, which was then itself modified and ported to create the Xbox 360 OS. Last but not least, and to some degree mirroring this week's controversy when it was announced, Sega's late lamented DreamCast ran an operating system adapted from Windows CE. Given that Microsoft, years before the Xbox was even a twinkle in J Allard's eye, was still very much in its Beast of Redmond mode at the time, you can imagine just how much stick the DreamCast got from gamers for being a console that ran Windows; it makes the mud being hurled over Nintendo NX' association with Android look like a pillow fight at a tween sleepover.

In summary, the Nikkei's Android reporting is probably jumping the gun, but isn't entirely unrealistic and probably isn't entirely made up; moreover, it won't mean the slightest thing in the long run to the NX console and how it functions. It doesn't even tell us the slightest thing about what the NX actually is, for god's sake, although the rabid reporting of this titbit of rumour tells you just how much appetite there is for news about Nintendo's mysterious new device, which exists so far as nothing more than a code name (we don't even know if it's a home console, a handheld, both, or neither).

"The Nikkei has published things both accurate and inaccurate about Nintendo in the past, as have many other sources, but the Nikkei is the only one Nintendo has chosen to publicly reprimand for its inaccuracies"

But what of Nintendo's denial of the rumour? It's largely meaningless; Nintendo always denies rumours it doesn't like, whether they're accurate or not, and doesn't even bother to engage in the high-minded "we don't comment on rumours or speculation" shenanigans preferred by its rivals. It's never been any skin off Nintendo's nose to simply say something isn't true, and then announce it to public fanfare a little down the line - I suspect that the internal logic runs that things genuinely aren't "true" until they're announced officially. This goes double for rumours originating with the Nikkei, with whom Nintendo seems to have a pretty uncomfortable relationship. The Nikkei has published things both accurate and inaccurate about Nintendo in the past, as have many other sources, but the Nikkei is the only one Nintendo has chosen to publicly reprimand for its inaccuracies.

I don't know the basis for this bad blood, but I'd caution those reading reports, or re-reporting them on news websites, not to dismiss the Nikkei lightly; the Nihon Keizai Shimbun isn't a scurrilous blog, it's Japan's leading business newspaper, comparable to the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal, and usually actually very good in its reporting. That doesn't mean they're right about Nintendo and Android; it just means they deserve to be taken seriously, just as a report in the FT or the WSJ would be.

Will the Nintendo NX run Android? I don't even know what the Nintendo NX is going to be; but I still learned two things from this story. One, Nintendo is almost certainly trying out mature operating systems for size on its new hardware; and two, the Internet is desperately, desperately hungry for Nintendo NX news right now, which means that despite the tough times the Wii U is facing, Nintendo's next shot at goal remains one to watch.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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