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Nokia leans into emerging markets with three new phones

On the eve of its buyout by Microsoft, Nokia uses the Mobile World Congress stage to woo regions with first-time smartphone buyers.

Nokia X
The Nokia X is one of three new smartphones aimed for users on a budget. Nokia

BARCELONA, Spain -- Nokia and Microsoft may be tying the knot by the end of March, but the Finnish phone-maker didn't release a single phone running on Microsoft's Windows Phone platform.

Instead, Nokia pushed further into greener territories of smartphone penetration, announcing a trio of mobile phones aimed at simple cell phone and smartphone use. These low-cost devices that come in under 100 euros unsubsidized, are strategically designed to appeal to the more than 90 percent of new users coming from emerging markets, Nokia VP Product Marketing for Mobile Phones, Jussi Nevanlinna, told CNET.

The least expensive among them, the Nokia 220, is a simple, colorful cell phone that will retail for 29 euros (about $40). It's chief function: making phone calls.

Jumping up a level, Nokia's Asha 230 is considered a first-timer's smartphone in-house, though I tend to class them more as feature phones circa 2010, due to their simple interface and essential personal communications and organizing tools. The Asha 230 is Nokia's lowest-cost Asha yet, retailing for 45 euros (about $62).

Then there comes the smartphone that's raised some eyebrows in the run up to Mobile World Congress, the Android-based Nokia X. Leaks readied industry-watcher's expectations that Nokia would release an entry-level Android smartphone running on Nokia's solidly-built hardware. Turns out, this X isn't that simple.

The 89 euros smartphone (about $123) makes some big trade-offs to achieve that price, like a single-core processor, a 3-megapixel camera with no flash, and very limited Android functionality outside of apps.

Read also: Emerging markets are the next smartphone battleground

Besides that, the interface looks like a clumsy cross between Asha and Windows Phone, and uses built-in Microsoft and Nokia services rather than Google's ecosystem with its naked-in signature maps, Gmail, and more.

Using the MWC stage to spotlight rather ho-hum devices may sound counterintuitive to Nokia's premium phone efforts, but it follows last year's model, where Nokia also announced two affordable Lumias, an Asha handset, and a 15 euros cell phone (just over $20).

This year, Nokia is continuing to bank on its brand reputation, the phone's approachable price point, and the appeal of its software and services to woo first-time smartphone owners to the Nokia X, and away from more traditional Android devices.

Microsoft's inheritance
Microsoft is buying Nokia's entire phone division, not just the Lumia brand of Windows phones. The strategy of going after emerging markets fits neatly into Microsoft's plan of planting a flag in more fertile, fluid soil for its own mobile brand cache and cloud ecosystem in challenge to Google and Apple.

If Microsoft continues the plan that Nokia set in place, we'll see even more budget phones flow into this starter sector. But my guess is that more of them will run Windows Phone than the Nokia X's hybrid Android experiment.

We go hands-on with all of Nokia's new phones, so be sure to see our deeper dives. Then, catch all the mobile news from Mobile World Congress 2014.