If events are supposed to pep you and feel good, Nokia’s global launch of the Asha 501 in Delhi was inch-perfect. CEO Stephen Elop charmed the crowd and Mobile User Experience Guru, Peter Skillman, had them eating out of this hands, especially when he climbed a ladder to access a massive Asha 501 on an on-stage screen. There was applause aplenty (Skillman typing in Hindi, Elop asking for a green model of the phone) and once the speakers had moved off the stage, the buzz that followed was a pleasant one. Oh yes, Nokia had nailed it with the Asha 501 – a whole new interface, funky design, a Facebook tie-up and a sub-hundred Dollar price!

nokia asha 501

That feeling persisted as we went through the demo zones and looked at the device. Oh yes, Nokia was definitely on to something here. The Asha 501 looked compact and smart, and seemed to work like a charm. And at just 99 Dollars, well, it was very good value for money.

Then, a young blogger – who clearly had not been putting fingers to keys in the days when Nokia ruled the world – dragged us back into reality. “Yeah, it’s cute,” he said. “But why the **** won’t I pay the same money and get a Micromax Canvas Vivo?”

The Android factor

And that really sums up the challenge Nokia’s Asia range faces. It’s a mountain called Android. And it has to be climbed.

It was all very different about a year ago, when low-end Androids offered about as good an experience as the Titanic on an iceberg littered ocean. Yes, you could get an Android device for less than a hundred dollars but the compromises were significant: bad design, poor displays, cameras that seemed seeped in Shades of Grey, specs that seemed right out of an eighties desktop, and next to nothing in terms of support. In those times, Nokia’s Asha series had seemed like a breath of fresh air – it just worked, without too many frills. Sheer efficiency at its best. Had the 501 been released at that time, we would have stood up and hailed a new conqueror in cell town, or at least in its lower priced segments.

nokia asha 501 launched

A year, alas, is a long time in tech. The Asha 501 remains a very good phone, but its competition has brushed up its act. The sub-hundred dollar Android phone is no longer the design and performance disaster its predecessor of a year ago were. The likes of Karbonn and Micromax have spruced up design, boosted specs and the result are devices like the one the blogger mentioned – the Canvas Viva, which costs a shade over a hundred dollars, sports a five inch display, a 1 GHz processor and a 3 megapixel camera, while running Android 2.3.

The high-end Android priests will smile down patronizingly at its limited specs (“What! Only 256 MB RAM? And who uses Android 2.3 now?!), but the stark fact is that in terms of experience, from what we have seen of the device, it delivered enough for someone just wanted to spend some time online and watch the odd video. And of course, Android 2.3 might be old but it still gets apps that are beyond the reach of Asha at the time of writing – Instagram and Flipboard being just two of them. Oh and yes, a proper Facebook app too. And let’s face it, surfing the Web on a five inch 800 x 480 display will always be a shade better than doing so on a three inch one with a lower resolution.

A phone is a phone is a…

And that I really think is where Asha’s greatest challenge lies. At one level, we really love the phones, but – and this needs to be noted – we love them for their typical Nokia efficiency. We love the way they handle calls and texts, the contact management, the solid build… do you see where we are heading? WE LOVE THEM FOR THE SAME REASONS WE LIKED PHONES BEFORE THE SMARTPHONE REVOLUTION BEGAN! (sorry for the capitals, folks, but I just think the point needs to be driven home)

Those reasons are still valid – yes, we still make calls and send and receive texts from our handsets, but those functions are no longer center-stage. A company from Cupertino released a handset that could not forward texts and had issues with calls and sold millions. Another company from Asia released a phone whose design reeked of plastic and sold millions again. It ain’t just about the basics any more. It is about the Web, the apps, the interface…

And that – that! – should be where Asha should be looking to score. Does it? Well, it has a decent browser and yes, we were told about the thousands of apps available on the new platform, and yes, its interface has been revamped and now looks right like the uber smooth N9. Super. The problem? The opposition already has all of those. And just a bit more besides, thanks to Android’s app reservoir and more seamless Web integration. And it has stacks of handsets up its sleeves.

It takes a smartphone to…slay another

Mind you, it is not that Android is unbeatable at that position. Its vulnerabilities were shown up to an extent when Nokia released the low priced Lumias last year and even today, if someone asks me about the best value for money low cost smartphone (sub-200 Dollars) in the market, I will stake everything on the Windows Phone 8 driven Nokia Lumia 520, warts and all. Up the budget a bit (say, 250 Dollars), and I will opt for another Lumia – the 620. And if you have barely 150 Dollars in your kitty, I will ask you to search for a dealer who still has a Lumia 510. Each of these phones offered a much better experience than similarly priced Android devices.

And even before the Lumias came along, my recommendations were for Nokia’s Symbian S60 devices at lower prices – the brilliant E5 for instance. The point to note, however, is that it takes a smartphone to slay another. The Asha series? They are awesome phones, but they are phones first. Which is why many of the tech crowd were talking about how the Asha 501 was a great option for their tech-challenged parents or relatives! That is not a bad thing, but I am not sure that is the kind of audience Nokia is looking at for the range.

It’ll sell, but it needs to change

Which is not to say that there is no hope for the Asha series. Au contraire, I expect it to sell in millions, as it has been doing. I loved the look and feel of the 501 and it is an awesome device for anyone looking for a good phone on a budget. The problem is that the number of people looking for just good phones is decreasing – the masses have sniffed smartphone blood, courtesy Android. And they know they can do much more on a handset than just calls, text and maybe a smidgeon of e-mails (as that Canadian company discovered). That said, there are still thousands of people – my mum is one – who want nothing more than a solid phone that lets them makes calls, looks decent and runs for hours and hours on a single charge… and then, maybe do a bit online and play the odd game. And as they do not actually do all that much on their handsets or spend the day glued to them, they do not wish to spend a bomb on them either. The Asha series fits them like a glove.

The problem is – their number, although still formidable, is steadily shrinking.

It may get away by ignoring it for a few more quarters, but the stark fact is that at some time in the near future, Nokia’s Asha will have to revamp itself again. Look more seriously at bigger displays, better cameras and better apps. Maybe even change its brand strategy and become more aspirational and less hopeful.

It will need to not just look at, but also climb, the mountain that is standing in its path.

And its name is Android.

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Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.