Nokia’s real innovation is happening on Asha, not Windows Phone

Nokia(s nok)’s new flagship has been revealed. Not the Lumia 928 – that was announced late last week as a “hero” device for Verizon(s vz)(s vod) — but the GSM-friendly Lumia 925. As predicted, Nokia is highlighting the photographic capabilities of the device and its camera is slightly enhanced over that on the 928, but the real difference here is the 925’s aluminium frame.

Here in Europe, people don’t like their phones too thick and plasticky, and that’s been a consistent criticism levelled at the Lumia 920, Nokia’s previous flagship, and for that matter the very similar-looking 928. The 925 makes things sleek and metallic (I like metal; I used to be a proud owner of the Nokia E71) and is, at 139g, significantly lighter than the 920 (185g) and 928 (163g).

The 8.7-megapixel camera has 6 elements, rather than the 5 found in the 920 and 928, and wireless charging comes courtesy of a snap-on cover rather than being built in, but otherwise it’s really, really similar to the 928: 1GB RAM; 1,280 x 768-pixel, 4.5-inch OLED screen; dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm(s qcom) processor; and so on.

Here’s how IHS Screen Digest mobile chief Ian Fogg reacted as the unveiling happened:

And there’s the thing. You can tell Nokia didn’t have that much to shout about in hardware terms, because its main message around the 925 is the around the photo-centric apps it’s pre-installing, namely Hipstamatic’s Oggl and Nokia’s own Smart Camera software, which clearly seeks to rival Samsung’s recent efforts in the Galaxy S4. This is all good and fine, but exciting? Not so much.

Look lower

But even if the limitations of the Windows Phone platform don’t allow Nokia to truly exercise its innovation muscles, that doesn’t mean the Finnish handset maker is taking it easy. Just look at what it’s doing at the low end of its range, once we’re out of Microsoft(s msft) territory.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, the QWERTY-enabled Asha 210 offers an incredible amount of social functionality for its $72 price tag (the Lumia 925 costs just north of $600). And just last Thursday, Nokia revealed the Asha 501, a touchscreen device that runs the new version of Nokia’s S40-derived operating system and also comes in at under $100.

Nokia Asha 501The new version of Asha comes with features such as Fastlane, a second homescreen option that provides direct access to recently accessed contacts and apps, rather than showing a conventional grid of apps. This is all a result of Nokia’s purchase in early 2012 of Smarterphone, a Norwegian company that tries to make so-called featurephones seem, well, smarter.

Nokia has come in for a lot of flak for calling its all-touch Ashas “smartphones”, with many seeing this as a trick to inflate its real smartphone shipment figures. That may be one motivation, but I honestly think Nokia has every right to call these devices smart. When the 501 came out, Nokia also made a major push for developers to address the revamped Asha platform, releasing a new SDK and new in-app payment tools. Apps that are already on or in development for the platform include Facebook(s fb), Foursquare, LinkedIn(s lnkd) and Twitter, and also games from the likes of EA(s ea) and Gameloft.

Sure, heavier apps are lacking, but frankly the kinds of apps we’re talking about there might be better executed on a tablet than a smartphone anyway – particularly given the excellent battery life promised by Asha phones, Asha-plus-tablet is starting to look like a pretty tempting combo.

Who’s smart now?

Of course, the big promise with Windows Phone these days is that it will hit lower and lower price points, perhaps becoming a viable rival to low-mid-range Android devices at some stage (right now Nokia has only managed to cross the $200 threshold with Windows Phone products, namely the Lumia 520). These Ashas are already targeting the same rivals, though, and they are more optimized for the price point than efforts based on Google(s goog)’s OS.

Nokia is clearly putting a large amount of effort into industrial design and user experience for both the Windows Phone and Asha ranges. However, it has way more freedom to tinker with its own platform. There’s also the small matter of price — the Lumia 925 costs 6 times as much as the Asha 501 so, if customers respond well to the new version of the Asha platform, the potential impact of the 501 will be greater than that of the Lumia 925. (That is admittedly a big “if”, though, as last quarter’s results showed roughly even sales for Lumia and full-touch Asha phones, with Lumia heading up and Asha down.)

The Lumia 925 sure does look fine, and if I was in the market for a high-end smartphone I’d give it strong consideration. However, in terms of making a real splash, the innovations Nokia is making at the low end come through more starkly than the tweaks made to its Lumia range.