Nokia’s Smarterphone Buy Yields First Fruit: $99 Touchscreen Asha 501 Polishes S40 With Fastlane View For Recent Apps, Contacts

Nokia has given its Series 40-based range of touchscreen Asha smartphones another push to try to keep up with the low end reach of Google’s Android platform today. The mobile maker has announced a new addition to the range — the Asha 501 (pictured left & below) — which also ushers in a new version of the Asha touch UI that’s designed to be quicker and slicker, and has a focus on swiping gestures to make it feel more fluid.

The three-inch capacitive screen Asha 501, which has Wi-Fi but no 3G and costs $99 before taxes & subsidies, is expected to start shipping in June, via some 60 carriers in more than 90 countries worldwide. Nokia’s Asha range typically targets emerging markets in Africa, Asia and South America but Asha devices have also been ranged in Europe.

Although Nokia has retired its other in-house platform Symbian, to concentrate its smartphone efforts on Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS, it has continued to expand its portfolio of low end Android alternative S40-based devices — adding in a variety of new hardware and software features to devices in the range, including full Qwerty keyboards; dedicated keys for Facebook/WhatsApp; refreshed industrial design; its Bluetooth sharing technology Slam; its Xpress browser to lighten the data consumption load; preloaded social networking apps; free games downloads; and a focus on long battery life.

But keeping up with low end Androids also means improving Asha’s usability — and that’s what its latest platform refresh is all about.  The Asha 501 is in fact the first fruit of Nokia’s 2012 acquisition of Smarterphone, a Norwegian company that made mobile OSes for feature phones designed to give them smartphone looks and capabilities.

Nokia Asha 501 Color Range

Nokia said the new Asha platform is faster and more responsive. It also introduces a touchscreen UI refresh — with a dual homescreen view: the Home screen is a “traditional icon-based view for launching individual apps or accessing a specific feature”, while the new Fastlane view changes based on device usage, showing things like “recently accessed contacts, social networks and apps”.

Fastlane “provides a record of how the phone is used, giving people a glimpse of their past, present and future activity, and helping them multi-task by providing easy access to their favorite features”, according to Nokia’s press release. The feature sounds a lot like certain portions of Motorola’s Android skinning software — such as the widgets deployed on 2012 devices like the Motorola Motosmart.

The overall idea of the design refresh is to make it easier for Asha users to get to the apps and features they’re after, according to Nokia — with the two main screens accessible by a “simple swipe”. “Fastlane is integral to the whole Nokia Asha 501 experience, but so is the ‘swipe’ motion,” a spokeswoman told TechCrunch. “With swipe as you experience it on the device, we were able to make optimal use of screen space, so you see just what you need. You swipe to everything else, including pull-down menus and of course, Fastlane. The whole user experience is faster and more responsive.”

New Asha, New Apps

So what about apps? The new Asha platform does require developers to rework apps for it — either by writing them afresh or porting them over. Which does mean Nokia is pushing the reset button yet again, but the company would probably argue that at this price point with these price-conscious consumers, users aren’t expecting hoards of apps — just select key apps. It’s also added in-app purchases to the new Asha platform, offering developers a new way to monetise Asha apps, along with its Nokia Advertising Exchange and carrier billing network.

“A good percentage of existing apps can be ported to the new platform,” said Nokia’s spokeswoman. “We already have many developers working on this. Going forward and with the new Nokia Asha Software Development Kit, developers can write an app once, and it will be compatible with future devices also built on the new Asha platform, with no need to re-write code.”

Apps that are already available for the new Nokia Asha platform include CNN, eBuddy, ESPN, Facebook, Foursquare, Line, LinkedIn, Nimbuzz, Pictelligent, The Weather Channel, Twitter, WeChat, World of Red Bull and games from Electronic Arts, Gameloft, Indiagames, Namco Bandai and Reliance Games. Nokia said its HERE location software will also be available as a download, starting in Q3 this year — and will “initially include basic mapping services”.

Messaging giant WhatsApp is noticeably absent from the list but Nokia’s spokeswoman suggested that may change in future, noting: “WhatsApp and other key partners continue to explore new Asha.”

In select markets, certain carriers are also offering data-free access to apps including the Facebook app and mobile website on the 501 for a limited time, offering another hook for the target cost-conscious consumers.

The 501 comes preloaded with Nokia’s cloud-based data compressing Xpress browser. Nokia has also created a new web app, called Nokia Xpress Now, which “recommends content based on location, preferences and trending topics”. It said this will be available via the Browser homepage or as a download from the Nokia Store.

“Nokia has surpassed expectations of what’s achievable in the sub-100 USD phone category with a new Asha handset that is unlike any other, with design cues from Lumia and a mix of features, services and affordability that is valued by price-conscious buyers,” said Neil Mawston, executive director, Global Wireless Practice, Strategy Analytics, in a supporting statement.

Commenting on the launch via Twitter, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi added: “Asha 501 shows what you can achieve when you design bottom up rather than strip down features to hit the right price point.

“Asha 501 Dual SIM with hot swap very important to users but what is most striking on this device is the user interface.”

The full device specifications for the Asha 501 are as follows:

  • Dimensions:  99.2 x 58 x 12.1 mm; 98 grams

  • Camera: 3.2 MP

  • Single SIM standby time: up to 48 days

  • Dual SIM standby time: up to 26 days

  • Talk time: up to 17 hours

  • Additional memory of 4GB (card included in box), expandable up to 32GB

  • Forty free EA Games worth €75 downloadable from Nokia Store

  • Available colours: Bright Red, Bright Green, Cyan, Yellow, White and Black

  • Suggested pricing is 99 USD before taxes and subsidies.