When a company does a global launch out of India, you don't have to look far to see which is their primary market for the product. So when Nokia CEO Stephen Elop makes a surprise appearance in New Delhi for the launch of the next generation of Asha devices you can pretty much gather how high India, and the Asha series, are on Nokia's list of priorities.
As the name suggests, the Asha series is actually a phone inspired by India and one of the key elements in Nokia's plans to connect the next billion. If the base of Indian internet users grows drastically in the next few years it will be because of affordable, connected devices like the Nokia Asha or the Samsung Rex, not smartphones, however cheaper they might become.
These affordable phones pack in a lot of features you will find on a smartphones - be it Internet connectivity, apps, games or entertainment. Along with the smartphones, they are helping telecom operators grow their revenues from data. The Asha series has already sold over 20 million phones, and also clocked over a billion downloads from the Nokia Ovi store.
And Nokia seems to have factored this into its scheme of things. The new Asha 501 will cost just $99 (about Rs 5,400) but will also ensure the company sustained revenue from the app ecosystem it has created around the device. The Nokia Ovi store is still the largest app store in India.
"It is indeed our effort to create a robust ecosystem around this new platform. We already have the world's largest operator billing network with over 150 partners and we have now introduced in-app billing, all promising the best returns for developers," Nokia's executive vice-president mobile phones Timo Toikkanen told Business Today. He said the Nokia Asha 501 is the best possible phone at under $100 and the effort was not on adding specs, but providing the best user experience.
For millions who plan to upgrade from a basic feature phone to something better, the Asha series provides an affordable option with a touchscreen, easy and cheap access to the internet with a custom browser that compresses data to make it faster on 2G networks, and the ability to download apps and entertainment content. The new Asha could also be the gateway for new Facebook users as Nokia has tied up with the social networking giant to provide free access to Facebook's app.
Peter Skillman, Vice-President Smart Devices Ux Design at Nokia
With the smartphone segment still under 10 per cent of the overall mobile phone market in India, Nokia is eyeing a segment that could be as large as 60 per cent of the market. Asha is already playing a crucial role in keeping Nokia at the top in terms of overall sales in India with 21.8 per cent of the market. Now Samsung too has also realised the potential of the smart feature phone and launched its Rex series in India first.
"India is the bellwether market and that is why we are launching this phone from here," Elop said during the launch. He added that this was the first in a series of phones to feature the new operating system. "The Asha 501 is a cost effective experience. Hold it side by side with any other OS and it has a very competitive position."
Peter Skillman, Vice-President Smart Devices Ux Design at Nokia said the experience was better because the Nokia Asha platform has been specifically designed and was not culled from what had been made for other devices. "There are three key things in an OS design: how to start apps, how to switch between apps and how to handle notifications. We promise a great experience with all three. Performance isn't just a feature with the Asha, it is the only feature," he said in an interaction on the sidelines of the launch.
Incidentally, Nokia will not be launching the Asha 501 in the US and Canada. That is a battle which Nokia's Lumia
will have to fight on its own.