ashapando

It’s one thing for a writer to claim that Nokia is “entering its death spiral.” It’s another for a shareholder to say “Are you aware that results are what matter?” But that’s just what someone said to Nokia CEO Stephen Elop during a shareholder’s meeting in Helsinki before adding “The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Please switch to another road.”

That road, besides being paved with good intentions, is built from high-end smartphones with lackluster returns. Despite the Lumia 920 — and its predecessor, the Lumia 900 — offering some of the most innovative design this side of the iPhone 4 and HTC One, neither handset gained much traction when compared against rival devices from Apple and Samsung. (Some 5.6 million Lumia devices were sold in the first quarter; Apple sold 37.4 million iPhones during the same period.) High-end devices aren’t going to aid Nokia in its turnaround.

But what if low-end devices meant to look like high-end smartphones could? What if Nokia could build something for emerging markets that defies the prototypical “make it cheap” approach to low-end products and instead mimics Nokia’s better-but-more-expensive products?

Enter the Nokia Asha 501, a low-end device built for developing markets Nokia announced today. The Asha 501 resembles the Lumia 920, which Engadget called “another glorious piece of hardware from Nokia” and that I described as dragging Windows Phone 8 to the high-end smartphone war. (Never mind that Nokia “made a hash” of the Lumia 920’s announcement.) Combining the Lumia line’s attention to detail and design sensibility with a low price and features built specifically for developing markets could make the Asha 501 the smartphone Nokia — and consumers — need.

Nokia is no stranger to emerging markets, with the company selling more than twice as many Asha-branded smartphones than Lumia devices during the end of 2012. The devices might not grab headlines or be co-introduced by Nokia and Microsoft in front of a rapt audience, but they have quietly become Nokia’s most popular products.

Improving those products — and partnering with Facebook to offer consumers free cellular data — could be more important to Nokia than building yet another high-end device that fails to compete with the iPhone or Samsung’s Galaxy S line. Nokia is a low-end smartphone maker that happens to have built some of the best-designed high-end smartphones on any platform.

Maybe if Elop embraces that role he’ll stop being taken to task by shareholders, the tech press, and anyone else interested in results more than good intentions.