For years, Nokia has insisted that it could compete with low-end Android devices through the combination of entry-level Windows Phone models and its smartphone-like Asha feature phones.
With the introduction of the Android-based Nokia X on Monday, though, the Finnish phone maker is essentially conceding that the strategy wasn’t working.
The 89 euro ($122) device is designed to compete where Nokia has struggled most — with first-time smartphone buyers in the most price-sensitive markets and countries. Nokia aims to start selling the device almost immediately in some places, though there are no plans to bring the phone to the United States.
With the Nokia X line, the company has built a smartphone on top of Android, but has swapped out all of Google’s services. The phone uses Nokia’s music service and Here maps, along with Microsoft services including Outlook.com, Skype and OneDrive.
Nokia says going with Android will allow it to reach prices it hasn’t been able to with the Windows Phone-based Lumia line. Microsoft on Sunday announced a series of moves aimed at allowing its operating system to run on less expensive hardware. Nokia says that as Windows Phone hits lower prices, it anticipates moving the X line down to even lower price points.
The question now is whether the Nokia X line can compete against traditional Android phones. With its modest specifications, including a three-megapixel camera, Nokia is forgoing some of the company’s signature traits.
Nokia will have to compete both against models that offer beefier hardware for that price as well as the lure of Google’s app store and other services. Because Nokia is not installing all of Google’s services, it can’t preload any of them, meaning no Gmail, no Google Maps and, importantly, no Google Play store.
In a surprise move, Nokia introduced two other members of the Nokia X family that will arrive next quarter. The Nokia X+ is basically the same phone with additional memory, while the Nokia XL is a larger version, with a 5-inch screen and 5-megapixel camera. The Nokia XL phone hadn’t been previously rumored, nor was it part of the briefings that Nokia did with reporters in recent days.
The biggest difference between the Nokia X phones and traditional Android devices will be the inclusion of Microsoft/Nokia services rather than Google. It remains to be seen whether consumers view that as a selling point or a downside.
While the Nokia X is largely compatible with most Android apps, getting them is trickier than on a phone that comes preloaded with the Google Play store.
To get apps, users will have a few options. First, Nokia will have its own smaller store of programs it has certified will run on the Nokia X. Nokia won’t say how many apps will be in that marketplace, but said many of the top 150 programs will be there, as well as a good selection of others.
Nokia says users can also download programs from a third-party app store, an option that it notes is already popular in some markets, such as China and Russia, where Yandex is a primary source of Android apps.
However, downloading from a third-party store offers no guarantee that an app will be fully compatible. Because Nokia is going on its own for services, apps that rely directly on Google Maps or Google’s in-app payments mechanism will need to be tweaked to run properly on the Nokia X.
In addition to tapping third-party app stores, customers can also “side-load” apps that are on a computer or memory card. Plus, Nokia has partnered with software makers to ensure a number of popular programs come with the device, including BBM, Facebook, Opera and WhatsApp.
What Nokia has done with the X is similar in approach to Amazon’s Kindle. Amazon, too, uses the open-source version of Android and substitutes its suite of services (along with Nokia’s maps) for Google’s.
It’s worth noting that Nokia has waited this long to do this. In choosing Windows Phone over Android several years ago, Nokia said it didn’t believe it could stand out enough against a sea of competitors that had been in the space longer.
For some time, it worked on another Linux-based option, code-named Meltemi, to bridge between the Asha and Lumia lines, but decided to kill Meltemi in mid-2012.
Separate from the Nokia X announcement on Monday, the company is also introducing a new lower-cost touch option in its Asha line — the $61 Asha 230 — as well as its cheapest-ever data-capable basic phone, the $39 Nokia 220.
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