14 Comments

Summary:

It doesn’t make sense for Nokia to build Android-powered phones. Or does it? The company’s Asha line still runs on S40. Perhaps an overhaul of the engine powering Asha is in order and Android could easily fit the bill.

Nokia Android
photo: @evleaks

Last week the first reported pics of Nokia’s Android software appeared and on Monday, additional images surfaced, showing a little more of the interface. The Verge spotted this picture on Twitter which, just like last week’s images, clearly show two signal strength indicators; one for each SIM card. That suggests the markets for such phones: The same ones today served by Nokia’s Asha line.

The overall look of both the phone and the software in this picture match up with prior images from noted tipster @evleaks. This newest image is reportedly from an engineering prototype of the Normandy, which is the alleged codename for the handset. It simply doesn’t make sense for Nokia to enter the traditional Android handset market with Normandy.

Instead, using Android to strengthen the company’s Asha phone line-up seems the likely play to me.

Asha-503-Hero-image-1-jpg

While Nokia took on Windows Phone as its primary smartphone platform in February 2011, a new Android line could provide the company with a platform replacement for its Asha line, which are limited, low-cost handsets sold in emerging markets built on Nokia’s aging S40 platform.

By replacing S40 with Android as the underlying platform to power the Asha line, Nokia can take advantage of Android’s wide usage and developer support. Nokia can customize the look and feel of Android, similar in approach to Amazon’s Kindle, while building in access to Microsoft’s software and services. Think SkyDrive, Skype and Office.

Skype on Android

This approach would gain Microsoft access to hundreds of millions of additional users and do so through Android of sorts. Google’s platform could be the engine under the hood of such smartphones to provide more mature features than S40. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Google re-worked Android with KitKat, or Android 4.4: The new platform can run well on phones with as little as 512 MB of memory.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around app support though. Look to the Kindle as an example. Since Amazon uses the Android Open Source Project, or AOSP, version of Android it doesn’t provide access to Google’s services such as Gmail, Chrome and the Play Store.

That’s fine in Amazon’s case as it created its own email client and Silk Browser, not to mention it own application store. How Nokia would manage this — particularly with an app store that supports software written to run on Android — is still an open question.

Nokia Asha 501

Regardless of that, the strategy seems sound. Microsoft spent $7.17 billion on Nokia’s device business in September. As part of that deal, Microsoft gained the Asha brand, giving it a foothold into new markets.

It’s not likely that Microsoft can get easily get its software and services running on S40 devices but it makes no sense to abandon the brand. Instead, switching it over to Android gives the company a way to push Asha as a modern-looking, low-cost line as an entry point for Microsoft software. And when those Asha users are ready for something more robust, they can step up to Windows Phone in the future.

Why not use Windows Phone for the Asha line to begin with? It’s a valid question. But as Microsoft appears heading towards a merger of sorts between Windows Phone and Windows RT, it looks like the smartphone platform is going to need more horsepower under the hood, not less. Asha running Windows services atop a lightweight version of Android makes more sense at the entry level.

  1. This made total sense for Nokia. This makes zero sense no matter how you look at it for Microsoft Nokia. For Microsoft, if WP will not work on low end devices, it would be better to leave them as Asha rather than build Android phones. There are only problems for MS to be selling Android phones – first and foremost the perception that Windows Phone can’t scale (down in this case). Microsoft doesn’t need additional perception problems for Windows phones. Secondly, it does nothing to encourage people to move up to a WP device. Instead, because of app stickyness, it might direct consumers to upgrade to other Android devices. Elop made the wrong decision 3 years ago. It was a bold decision, but it didn’t pay off. Nokia could either have been the Samsung of Android or at least have given Samsung a good run for their money. Instead they are on a sub 10% third platform and just a Microsoft subsidiary.

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    1. All valid points. But I can’t see how Microsoft can get in on the lower end of the market with Asha if the phones keep running S40. Your point on the perception of WP not scaling down is spot on… Do you think consumers in the market for Asha phones care though? I doubt it.

      I’m not saying this is the smartest play in the world; I think its among the best options though.

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      1. Humberto Saabedra Monday, January 13, 2014

        All of this back and forth serves to remind me that Nokia already had a replacement for S40/Asha as far back as 2012. It was called Meltemi and was also Linux-based, much like Android with a focus on using SMS and MMS as closed loop data carriers.

        The key differences were that Meltemi was designed to run on S40 reference hardware (<256MB RAM) and would have served to keep Nokia relevant against Android in the low end against cheap Chinese and Indian Android phones long before KitKat arrived to fix Android's issues running on low-end hardware.

        Much like everything else Elop killed, it died because it was a threat to Windows Phone at the time and the initiative was killed with devices dead on the vine. Nokia adopting Android to replace S40 would essentially be reviving the Meltemi initiative without having the benefit of all of the framework and low-level gruntwork it spent millions developing with Qt to integrate into its Normandy Android build, meaning it started from scratch.

        If Nokia does decide to release its own custom Android build with Normandy, it'd have to be so far apart from KitKat source as to be unrecognizable, much like Amazon's build. I'm not convinced that the initiative is dead, but it really is at a point where the more we see of it, the higher the likelihood of an exclusive release in select regions.

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        1. I had (still have actually) the Nokia N800. It was an internet tablet using Maemo (Linux). It was almost impressive. But it had two glaring weaknesses. The browser (Mozilla based I think) was awful. And getting apps and updates was not a very good experience at all. All kinds of incompatibility errors, dropped installs and updates.

          This was in 2007. A lot of time has passed. Apple nailed it with the App Store and later Google bested it with the Play Store (web based, install from web etc.). For Nokia to get it right this time, they will have to get both apps and the store right. Unfortunately these are 2008-2010 goals. If they don’t have Google Play Services, they don’t have Google Now, Google Voice etc. They don’t really need it on the Asha lines, but they will be re-inventing the wheel without a lot of ROI I think. Amazon is able to do it by hoping to make money from media. I don’t see where Nokia will be making the money on such low cost low margin devices if they also have to foot the bill for creating an app store.

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          1. Microsoft is well-versed in Linux. It owned SCO for decades. Microsoft had made many, many applications for competing platforms. If Microsoft wants to survive in mobile, of has to let go of the idea that it must use Windows. Windows is killing Microsoft.

            Forking Android makes more sense than putting along with Asha SP. Nokia owns 92% of the Windows Phone market, and 80% of THAT was the low-end Lumia 520 (512MB, 480×800). Windows Phone is already “low rent”. Despite what Nokia would love to have people believe with their web ads about the 1020 and 1520, all they have sold are budget phones

            Nokia’s sickness about being beholden to a dying and dated idea is infecting Microsoft. We are in the post-PC era. Microsoft just needs to give up on the whole Windows on touch thing. We are already hearing that Windows 9 is going back to Windows 7 (no start screen, all apps are windowed). just fork Android and be done with it.

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            1. Carlos A. Osuna Sunday, January 19, 2014

              Mitch:

              I think things are far more complex. Just like Sony which struggled with Betamax for almost ten years since conceding defeat with VHS would have essentially killed tons of other revenue centers.

              Microsoft needs to take a page from that book and start moving both Windows Phone and Windows RT into the professional grade where people do care about Office integration and constant information flow.

              Just like Sony transitioned Betamax into Betacam and started releasing cheap Taiwan-based VHS VCRs and continued development until they perfected Video8, Hi8 and ultimately Digital8.

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      2. I don’t think MS can get in the lower end Asha line up. And it doesn’t matter at all to Asha users now. But it’s got to have an impact when/if they ever scale up. And going from a proprietary format to WP I think is a better option for MS than going from Android to WP.

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    2. Carlos A. Osuna Sunday, January 19, 2014

      @os2baba… Ironically as well as technically, it makes all the sense to either Nokia and Microsoft.

      The fact that there’s absolutely no Symbian (S40) knowledge in Microsoft and abundant Android programmers dedicated to maintain SkyDrive, Hotmail.com, Office 365 and OneNote, makes it easier to build a feature-by-feature low cost phone that can complement Lumia.

      I’ve always said that it’s makes perfect business sense for Microsoft to port the Windows Phone 7 platform to Linux or to offer that engine as a Android app as a modern way to Embrace, Extend, Extinguish.

      Right now, if people want to try, and I make emphasis on that word, the Windows Phone ecosystem they have to give up everything they have on previous phones.

      If Microsoft focuses on creating a “ramp up” phone which offered “the best of both worlds” they could entice people to upgrade, in a further generation to the attributes of Windows Phone 8 while keeping developers happy by reusing their old developments done for 7.

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  2. My guess is that the phone will be heavily customized to look and feel like a wp (user interface). People looking for an entry level android phone will be inclined towards a “nokia android” phone. Then MS can smoothly transform them into windows phone users once they are familiar with the interface. Remember that ms had discussions with some vendors about dual booting wp and android in some handsets.

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  3. The Ashas that you put in Thaís articule does not run on the aging S40, but on the new Asha Platform.

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  4. @Mitch Hancock

    No. microsoft never owned SCO. The Santa Clara operation was an independent Unix company until it was bought by Linux company Caldera, which promptly declared war on Linux, and later went bankrupt. All this was covered in remarkable detail at the Groklaw site.

    This development is great. After the purchase is completed, Google will be able to advertise, “Android — it’s so good that even Microsoft uses it”

    Also, Android oem’s have to pay patent royalties to Microsoft. So will the Microsoft Nokia division be sending money to the Windows division?

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    1. dancarlinrepost Friday, January 17, 2014

      Why does forking android make more sense than abandoning their mobile OS ambitions altogether. The tech press loves this because to them MS are the bad guys and it fits their narrative (looking at you gigaom) I don’t think this will sell any better than anything else they have tried. Just kill WP and metro and make compelling apps for IOS and android.

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  5. This is most likely happening. Press renders with so much clarity and professionalism almost always come to market.

    With this move, though risky, MS and Nokia are making a bold and calculated long-term play, something that’s been in the works for probably many many months. Nokia probably had this in development over a year ago as an Asha replacement, as well as something they could also place on its Lumia devices once its WP contractual obligation ended this year. Remember, it’s called “Normandy.” For those too young to remember or forgetful of history, this is the beach in France that the Allies stormed to retake Europe in WWII. As in, an all-in gamble by Nokia to retake their former glory.

    MS desperately needs to continue selling devices and, thus mindshare and adoption of MS services, in the non-first-world which is Asha’s target. This is why the Asha brand was part of the acquisition. It all makes sense now.

    If this were some kind of relic of Nokia’s negotiating strategy during acquisition talks, then these would have leaked many many months ago.

    I’m actually surprised the UI isn’t more of a copy of Windows, because doing so would even more so prepare an Asha user for Windows over the long term.

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  6. Imperial Dynamics Sunday, January 19, 2014

    So you wrote an article and don’t know even the basics?
    The latest Asha phones are NOT s40, they run a completely different OS that Nokia acquired from Smarterphone

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