Nokia targets developing world with cheap, simple phones

A Romanian man maneuvers on his horse-drawn cart on a road with a sign pointing toward the Nokia factory in the village of Jucu, where the Finnish cellphone maker opened an assembly line plant.
Daniel Mihailescu

As the Apples and Samsungs of the tech world dominate smart phone markets in the developed world, Finland-based mobile maker Nokia has set its sights elsewhere: the rural and isolated populations of the developing world.

The Nokia 105, with a retail price of $20, will not only provide cell phone service to residents of remote, underdeveloped areas. It also comes with a flashlight, an FM radio, and a battery that can last 35 days without a charge, in case of an electricity outage.

The phone is also built to withstand abuse, and protected against heavy dust and splashes, a feature sorely missed by users in the developed world wielding glass-jawed smart phones.

The myth of the “Indestructible Nokia” isn't new. It took on a life of its own on the internet as more delicate smart phones started flooding the markets in Europe and North America, replacing the ubiquitous 2000 model. Believed to have harnessed the durability of Chuck Norris’ death dealing foot, the Nokia 3310 was fabled to smash through concrete floors when dropped while the iPhone would shatter upon impact.

The only way to destroy the Nokia 3310, some believed, was to cast it into the fires of Mount Doom, the same method Frodo Baggins’ used to rid Middle Earth of the One Ring.

The Nokia 105 may not have the power to bring entire nations to their knees but its durability, lost to the West, is a feature that sets it apart from more fragile competitors currently popular in underdeveloped markets.

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"That is a key part of our approach to competition, particularly in a country like China," said Chief Executive Stephen Elop at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

"There's a very large number of inexpensive and largely undifferentiated devices. We believe we have to offer differentiation at each price point."

Nokia hopes to provide a recognizable brand as an alternative to other cheap devices manufactured in China that may be lower quality or prone to malfunction. 

"The pressure is now on the Chinese vendors. Why will any consumer in the world buy a cheap Chinese phone when they can have the same price with better quality from a well-known brand?" Francisco Jeronimo, International Data Corporation research director told Reuters.

Nokia also caters to the need for information in developing markets by providing text message updates on news and topics including agriculture, healthcare and entertainment to users without data plans.

Nokia Life Tools, already available in India, China, Nigeria, Indonesia, and soon in Kenya, enables users without a mobile data connection to receive timely updates on the topics they're subscribed to, allowing them to share messages with groups. 

Real-time updates on agricultural markets could help farmers get the best value for their crops at market, letting them stay abreast of shifting prices.

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Nokia’s product development is guided partly by ethnographic research that examines “market structures, livelihood activities, cultural practices, and how they operate in concert—and where a new thing like the mobile phone fits into that,” Jenna Burrell, an assistant professor at the school of information at the University of California, Berkeley, told the MIT Technology Review

While the Nokia 105s have yet to be introduced into developing markets, Nokia Life Tools already enjoys a large amount of popularity with rural populations in developing countries.

Martin Chirotarrab, president of Nokia Indonesia, said the mobile phone maker’s strategy was always on providing locally relevant solutions with the aid of local developers.

“We are working with more than 12,000 Nokia developers in Indonesia,” Chirotarrab told the Jakarta Post.

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Along with brand recognition, Nokia is hoping that its service features will help the company stay competitive in developing markets inundated with cheap alternatives. Nokia also hopes that a push in the developing world can pull the company out of a period of stagnation as Android and iOS devices swallow up most of the mobile device market.