Nokia unveils X, X+ and XL Android-based phones to draw users to Microsoft services

BARCELONA, Spain--Nokia (NYSE:NOK) has unveiled three smartphones running a 'forked' version of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android platform here at the Mobile World Congress trade show. Although the phones, the X, X+ and XL, had been rumored to be arriving since December, the news is still notable because Nokia uses Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone platform as its primary smartphone operating system and Microsoft is in the process of acquiring Nokia's handset business in a $7.4 billion deal.

Nokia's Stephen Elop introduced the Nokia X, X+ and XL Android-based phones.

Stephen Elop, Nokia's former CEO and current executive vice president of its services and devices unit, said more and more people around the world are buying smartphones for less than €100 ($137), which he described as a "massive opportunity" for Nokia to attack. The Nokia X family will serve as "feeder system" for Nokia's Windows Phones but will be sold at lower price points.

At a press conference to introduce the devices, Elop said Nokia's Lumia Windows Phones continue to be the company's primary smartphone strategy and are where it will continue to introduce the greatest innovation. Those devices will have access to all of Microsoft's cloud-based services and full integration with all Microsoft services. In contrast, the X family will have access to some Microsoft services including Skype and One Drive (Microsoft's renamed SkyDrive cloud storage service,) and Nokia services like Here maps and MixRadio.

Elop said the X family is complementary to Lumia and "serves the fast-growing, affordable smartphone segment, in particular for people in growth markets". He also said the X phones represent "a deliberate tiering of devices".  X phones will be priced below Lumia phones, Elop said, and even as Lumia devices get sold at lower price points than they are now, Nokia will push the X family "to price points that trend below that".

The Nokia X will sell for around $122 and will be available immediately in Asia Pacific, Europe, India, Latin America, the Middle-East and Africa. The X+ will be available in the early part of the second quarter for around $136 and the XL will be available around the same time for around $150. Elop said the phones will be available broadly around the world starting in "growth" markets. The prices exclude taxes or carrier subsidies.

The phones are dual-SIM and run Android Open Source Project software. The X and X+ have four inch IPC LCD displays, dual-core 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processors, three megapixel cameras and support for WCDMA in the 900 MHz and 2.1 GHz bands. The X has 512 MB of RAM and the X+ has 768 MB of RAM and 4 GB of internal storage. The XL has a five inch IPS LCD display, dual-core 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, five megapixel camera and two megapixel front-facing camera, 768 MB of RAM and 4 GB of internal storage, and support for WCDMA in the 900 MHz and 2.1 GHz bands.

Microsoft and Nokia have gone after the low end part of the market before. Microsoft in 2012 introduced software that could run on phones with 256 MB of RAM. Nokia's best selling Windows Phone device in 2013 was the low end Lumia 520, which has 512 MB of RAM. However, Elop said that X phones represent an opportunity to undercut Lumia's on price points in emerging markets, and take advantage of the Android ecosystem.

The X phones will not have access to the Google Play store, but will have access to third-party app stores like Yandex, Slide Me or others. Consumers can also side-load apps using an SD card. Elop said developers will be able to port Android apps to run on X phones fairly easily, and that Nokia will help developers by supporting in-app payment, try and buy schemes and operator billing. Nokia supports operator billing in 60 markets with more than 160 operators.

Continuing Nokia's strong brand design based on the Lumia's, the X phones also have a similar look to Nokia's Lumia Windows Phones. As on Windows Phones, the homescreen is tile-based and users can move tiles around and can resize a tile. Resizing the photo gallery tile, for instance, brings photos from camera roll. The phones also support apps like Vine and BlackBerry Messenger.   

It is unclear how favourable Microsoft will be to the devices and the strategy behind it once its deal with Nokia closes. On Sunday at a separate press conference here in Barcelona, Microsoft's Joe Belfiore, vice president of Windows Phone programme management and design, said Microsoft would support Nokia no matter what, but he did qualify that enthusiasm a little bit. 

"Some things we're excited about, some things we're less excited about," he said, to laughter from the assembled media. "Whatever they do, we're very supportive of them."

Nokia also unveiled the Nokia 220, a $40 phone (for the single-SIM version) that is able to connect to the Internet, designed especially for emerging markets and first-time Internet and mobile phone users. The phone sports a two megapixel camera, 2G connectivity, a battery with a month's standby time and 51 hours of music playback. Elop said the 220 "costs less than a months' broadband service but opens up a lifetime of possibilities". The phone also uses Microsoft's Bing Search, Elop said. Nokia also unveiled a new Asha phone, the Asha 230 with a 2.3 inch screen for around $62.

Elop added that BlackBerry Messenger will be coming soon to Nokia's Lumia Windows Phones.

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