Two years ago, Nokia underwent a major software reboot in abandoning its old Symbian ways and moving to Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system. Alongside that switch in the high-end segment, the company also introduced an unpretentious understudy OS it called Asha, which spawned a variety of cheap feature phones. Designed to address developing markets in poorer nations, the Asha handsets have so far proven a retail success. Nonetheless, the presumption has always been that Asha would be a stopgap solution — Nokia's stated goal is to drive down the price of Windows Phone devices, and increasingly affordable handsets like the Lumia 610 and 520 represent its slow but steady progress.
Asha may still be obviated by Windows Phone over time, however today Nokia gave it a major shot in the arm with the launch of what it calls the Asha platform. It's an upgrade to the old software that promises a "faster and more responsive" user experience alongside better developer tools for app creation, publishing, and monetization. Though that set of aspirations may be boilerplate for any mobile OS, the fact Nokia is investing resources into building up the Asha ecosystem is telling. The company doesn't seem to believe it's capable of moving Windows Phone down the pricing scale quickly enough, and so it's taking evasive action against incoming competition like Firefox OS by sprucing up the Asha line.
The new Asha platform UI has integrated a number of well-loved features from the MeeGo-powered Harmattan interface on the Nokia N9. First among them is the ability to double-tap the lock screen to wake the phone up, but elements of the Swipe UI, as well as the visual style and identity of the N9, are also present.
The Nokia 501, launched in New Delhi today, is the first member of this "new family of Asha smartphones." There's now a split between a Home screen, populated by a traditional icon grid, and a Fastlane view that serves as a notifications hub for your most recent calls, apps, and social network updates. Nokia's also secured a deal with Indian carrier Airtel to provide free access to the Facebook app and m.facebook.com in India and some African nations. It's a mild expansion on the already available Facebook Zero option for free browsing of the globe's most populous network.
The N9's Swipe UI features finally make it to a new Nokia phone
The 501 is recognizably an Asha phone — it has a very basic 3-inch display and 3.2-megapixel camera, a $99 starting price off-contract, and a dual-SIM option, again exhibiting a sensitivity to the needs of the emerging markets. What's most intriguing about it, however, is the effortless way with which it blends into Nokia's Lumia lineup as well. The six color options of the 501 include matching shades to those you can get when buying a Lumia 520, 720, 820, or 920, and its rotund, palm-friendly design also betrays a common DNA. Numerically, too, the 501 is the closest that Asha devices have come to their Lumia siblings, with Nokia's full lineup now gaining a coherence that lends itself to being defined as the "hundreds" series of Nokia products, with Asha and Lumia being mere software subsets.
Microsoft need not worry about Nokia's dedication to the Windows Phone cause. Devices like the imminent Lumia 928 will continue the battle to wrest control of the high end from Apple and Samsung, however Nokia's persistence with Asha can't be considered good news, either. It is evidence that Windows Phone isn't yet flexible enough to address all markets, leaving Nokia with no other option than to keep evolving the Asha platform.