The Internet has been alive with much discussion over the rumour that Nokia is working on Android-powered phones to replace the company's low-end Asha range. This isn't a betrayal of Microsoft or an embrace of Google, though. Nokia is just taking advantage of the new common platform in the global mobile world: the free, truly open AOSP, or Android Open Source Platform.
Google's Android, the Android that most Brits and Americans know, isn't actually open. It's free, but Google keeps strict control over the Google Play Store, Google Maps, Gmail, Chrome, the music and video players and other key apps.
If you're willing to do away with all of those, AOSP – the Android Open Source Platform – is basically a free, open mobile OS construction kit that anyone can use to build the mobile platform of their dreams. It's mostly provided by Google, but anyone can download and alter it to their whims.
In the UK and US, Amazon's Fire OS is the best example of an AOSP-based platform that has broken free from Google. AOSP is a much bigger deal in China, where using Google services is heavily discouraged by the government.
According to Gartner, 41 per cent of the Android devices sold in China aren't Google Android at all, but AOSP phones attaching to a range of different app stores with different built-in apps.
Android isn't a platform. It's become a platform of platforms, enabling Google Android, Amazon Android, Baidu Android, and a rainbow of other variants. I guess that makes Linux, Android's core, a platform of platforms of platforms.
The end of Series 40
Nokia's Asha phones (the Asha 308 is pictured below) are based on an ancient OS called S40, which first saw the light of day in 1999. S40 is spectacularly good at operating on phones with very slow processors and little memory, but it's proprietary and marooned; an ecosystem that isn't compatible with any of the current trends sweeping the industry. Nokia has really had to strain to get third-party apps built for these phones, even though they're popular.
Nokia clearly needs to cast off S40, and its new parent company, Microsoft, doesn't have a good alternative. The best tool in Microsoft's box is Windows Embedded Compact 7, which helped power Windows Phone 7 but isn't being upgraded quickly enough to make a good consumer OS. It's mostly for cars and industrial devices, which sit around for years without major software updates.
Windows Phone 8 is still too heavy for Asha-level phones. The platform typically demands 512MB of RAM and Qualcomm processors, while the Ashas have as little as 32MB of RAM. Microsoft could try to build a further stripped-down version of Windows Phone, but using AOSP could be a much cheaper and quicker way of getting there. RAM and processors are getting cheaper, but Nokia needs a stopgap OS for the meantime.
A Nokia AOSP platform would include Nokia/Microsoft services and icon designs rather than Google's designs. You'd have Bing Search, Here Maps, and maybe even Nokia's optimised web browser for browsing on 2G networks. I'd imagine the icons would look like Nokia "squircles" rather than Android squares, too. Maybe third-party Android apps from other devices would be compatible. Maybe they wouldn't. Almost certainly, Nokia would require developers to resubmit apps to its own store.
By adopting AOSP, Nokia could continue to build best-selling budget messaging and web phones without worrying about having to update an elderly platform, and without becoming too beholden to Google. That seems like a smart move; just don't expect these phones to look like Android as you know it.