Why Is Microsoft Still Manufacturing Dumbphones?

Microsoft’s Nokia division made a surprising new announcement today: Although the Nokia X, Asha and S60 lines have succumbed to Microsoft’s ax, somehow two Nokia Series 30–powered “dumbphone” models have escaped the bloodshed. 

It’s a 180-degree move for Microsoft, which not long ago moved Nokia’s mobile development to Windows Phone. But for some reason, it has decided to spare the $25 (€19) new entry-level Nokia 130 and Nokia 130 Dual Sim handsets. 

It may seem like a rather sudden pivot, but those basic handsets (what industry jargoneers call “feature phones”) could represent Microsoft’s best chance at capturing the low-end market—say, in developing countries. 

“Microsoft doesn’t have any other project that can reach these consumers,” Jo Harlow, a vice president at Microsoft, told Recode. And the Nokia 130 phones may not be the only ones aimed at these target customers, suggests this tweet from Doug Dawson, Microsoft spokesperson: 

Even so, the move is still baffling. Microsoft has made it very clear that it wants to shift Nokia’s mobile development toward its own mobile platform. (After all, it could use all the help it can get. Windows Phone is still trailing Android and iPhone by, ahem, a lot.) So it would make sense if the company used this dumbphone as a way to tempt users of low-end phones into the fold, then nurture them into the Windows Phone way of life—which is what some tech sites think could be happening here. 

Unfortunately, the Nokia 130 bears no resemblance to Windows Phones. At all. 

This candybar phone has hardware keys, no camera, no Internet connectivity and, most important, no ability to download and run Windows Phone mobile apps. Its feature list is incredibly sparse, covering calling, texting, reading off a microSD card, acting as an LED flashlight and playing music or videos.

Contrast that with the Android and iPhones aimed at developing countries: Although they’re also cheaper and less dense with advanced hardware specs, those devices are still smartphones that run a variety of apps.

So you might reasonably assume that Microsoft is merely giving Nokia a final moment in the sun. (That is, if you consider a minor product launch of a dumbphone to be a last hurrah.) That’s not likely to change, unless Microsoft can figure out how to tie some of its basic smartphone software—or even superficial interface elements—to this basic handset. Otherwise, the company has virtually no chance of tempting or introducing users to Windows Phone with this device. 

Not that the  Nokia 130 can’t be useful. When it launches, later this quarter, its rock-bottom price point and basic features would make it a terrific emergency phone, a back-up in case your primary smart gadget fails. But it’s not going to slow Microsoft’s massive bleed. For that, the company will need to look elsewhere. 

For a closer look at the 130, check out Nokia’s promo video below. 

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