Microsoft And Nokia Team Up To Take Back The Low End

Say a prayer for Android. Nokia’s new Lumia 710 Windows Phone, a $49 smartphone aimed at the feature-phone set, is about to change the way carriers sell – and customers see – cellphones. Forget LTE, dual cores, and all that flummery. Microsoft and Nokia are essentially buying a few million people stuck in the 20th century a new cellphone and they’re doing it in a way only the world’s two finest proprietors of technology to the masses could.

On the surface, the Lumia 710 is redolent of the bargain basement. The amateurish (but rugged) protruding buttons and a rubberized back are a direct attack against the carbon-fiber power slabs that most carriers are flogging while the OS is all animation and pop, aimed at a market that’s used to constantly moving images associated with ad-clogged web pages and Xbox dashboards. It is, to quote Ren and Stimpy, a jolly candy phone, priced to move and ready for the anything but iPhone crowd who, whether by dint of economics or aesthetics, don’t go much for Nexii or RAZRii either.

If you’re thinking that I’m suggesting the Lumia 710 is in any way bad or too “mainstream,” think again. Nokia and Microsoft were – and, to an extent, still are – on the ropes. Convinced for too long that their vaunted N-series was still lounging in high Olympus while it was really playing-second fiddle. It took Elop and his “sell-out” to Microsoft – whose money is helping subsidize this handset – to remake the brand.

The 710 is what Nokia does best: solid, acceptably-specced hardware at a price that’s approaching free. I would equate these phones with the long-dead Wing and Shadow, two “feature-smartphones” Microsoft belatedly tried to foist on a public salivating for the iPhone and the Nokia 5310, a music phone that circulated for a few years in the wake of the app phone revolution. Those were phones aimed at the low end at a time when the low end was looking up.

These past few years have changed the way we think about phones and, although there are cheap Android and iOS phones to be had for under $100, Nokia is really aiming at parents who may be buying their kids a new cellphone (the Xbox Live app is a huge deal) and out-of-work folks who are looking for a real smartphone experience for not a lot of money. Microsoft and Nokia excel at this.

I won’t estimate sales in the millions for this model, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow and steady trickle of phones like the 710 in the next few years. If Microsoft knows anything it’s that low-end, commodity hardware is just fine to showcase their software and if Nokia knows anything it’s low-end, commodity hardware is a great base on which to build a business. Nokia didn’t get huge by selling the Nokia N810. They got rich selling Neo’s 7110.

That said I also feel that this is a real and credible threat to Android. A single OS provider the size of Microsoft sending out updates to an entire line, from low to high, is increasingly seeming more credible than newcomer Google pumping out Ice Cream Sandwiches and other updates to the older phones that they clearly consider dross. Microsoft, through the execrable Windows Mobile platform, learned how to code to the lowest common denominator.

Claim chowder or not, 2012 is the year of WinPho.