Last week, we saw that Google was seemingly scrapping their work on Chrome for Android-based feature phones. As this was the only publicly visible work, we believe Google may have scrapped Android feature phones altogether. Now we have an in-depth look at what could have been, as a leaked video of an Android-based feature phone made by Nokia has surfaced. Our in-depth analysis has revealed new apps and interesting details about the project.
Early this year, we found evidence in open source code that Google was working on a version of Chrome for feature phones. This version of Chrome, surprisingly, was built for a version of Android designed for devices without touchscreens.
While we got a number of looks at this special build of Chrome, we only ever got one glimpse at how an Android feature phone (seemingly built by Nokia) would work. Since then, Google appears to have scrapped the “touchless” version of Chrome, signaling the likely end of the company’s experimentation with Android feature phones.
Now, a full video has leaked online and appears to have originated from the same source as our previous look at the only known Android feature phone. In the video, we get a feel for how Android-based feature phones could have operated.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the finer aspects of what’s shown in this video.
The most prominent part of the Android feature phone’s home screen, as seen in the video, is a Google Assistant microphone button. Selecting and clicking this button triggers a familiar four-color UI for speaking to the Google Assistant. Once the Assistant’s been triggered, an option appears offering for you to “Type” your query, just like on Android today.
The first app that the video really demonstrates is a build of Google Maps with a new UI for feature phones. While we don’t get to see how the actual map looks, we do see that the core functionality of Maps is there, including searching and browsing locations. Interestingly, instead of “Navigation” we see “Directions.”
Files by Google
There’s a handful of icons visible in the app list that we haven’t seen before — Browse Files, Clean Files, and Share Files. You may recognize that these are the three main sections of the Files by Google app. This hints pretty strongly at the fact that Google may have also built a specialized version of Files by Google for Android feature phones.
Toward the end of the video, we get to see a new layout for the Settings app, along with some information about the phone via the “System” app section. In a fun minor detail, note that the System icon has been replaced by an icon resembling a candy bar style feature phone. From here, we’re able to confirm our earlier suspicions that Google was basing this feature phone offshoot on Android 8.1 Oreo, not a more recent version.
On the “About phone” option, we see that the device is given the name “Iron GAFP.” While we can’t be 100% sure, we currently guess that this stands for “Google Android Feature Phone.” At this time, we’re not sure what “Iron” is.
No Play Store?
Among all the other apps that we see in this video, there’s one glaring omission that we need to call attention to. There’s no Play Store. Despite very clearly being an Android phone with Google apps and even the Google Assistant, there’s no Play Store on this leaked feature phone.
We know for a fact that this Android feature phone has at least some apps that aren’t web apps, like Google Maps and Chrome. So how would you be able to install these without a Play Store? We, unfortunately, weren’t shown any details on how this could work. Instead, we see a very intriguing new option included in the Settings app, titled “Auto-update apps.”
The video doesn’t explore this option, but it seems to indicate that an Android feature phone would have its own way of keeping apps up to date, instead of using the Google Play Store. This could even suggest that Android feature phones would have been severely limited in their ability to install native apps, focusing instead on web apps.
On that note, one key detail that’s easy to overlook in this leak is an installed app called “PROXX.” At this year’s Google I/O, the Google Chrome Labs team, behind web favorites such as Squoosh and Web-a-Skeb, presented a new open source Minesweeper clone, PROXX. The purpose of PROXX was to show how to design a web app (or game in this case) that both looks good and works well on devices ranging from desktops to feature phones.
At the time, we thought the timing of this talk was almost too convenient, taking place just a few months after our discovery of Google developing some sort of Android-powered feature phone, but we couldn’t put any evidence to it beyond a gut feeling. Now, PROXX’s appearance in this leaked video of the Nokia feature phone may put things into perspective.
While it’s possible that Google may have included PROXX on this Android feature phone simply because it was a fun, free game created by their colleagues, there’s a chance Google was trying to prep developers in advance for the potential of Android-based feature phones.
Putting it all together, it’s clear Google had a vision for how Android could enter the feature phone space, including a possible hardware partnership with Nokia. The company even took this vision and ran with it, bringing in its various teams — Android, Google Maps, Files by Google, and Google Chrome are certainly all developed by different teams — to make feature phone ready versions of their products.
It’s strange to think that Google threw away all of this effort, but we’ve already learned this week that they’re by no means afraid to discard work at the last minute, as seen with the ill-fated Pixel Watch. A case could be made for this happening to the Android feature phones effort by simply watching how slowly Google Maps loads — seven seconds! It’s possible Google may have believed this wasn’t enough to compete with KaiOS.
That being said, there’s still the possibility, albeit a slim one, that Google removed the “touchless” code from the Chromium repository to mask the effort from public view. For now though, we have no reason to believe this to be the case, and, until we see otherwise, we’re considering the project to have been scrapped.
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