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As Microsoft’s deal to buy Nokia nears completion, the once-dominant Finnish phone maker announced this morning at Mobile World Congress that it’s hedging its bets on products based on the Windows Phone operating system (see “A Comeback Phone Hampered by a Lack of Apps”) by offering three new low-end Android phones.

It’s an attempt to forge a best-of-all-worlds strategy: a custom Android operating system that can port Android apps (but not get them from Google Play); a tiled Windows Phone feel to the interface; Microsoft services like Skype and Outlook; and some solid Nokia services, such as its Here maps and Mix radio. Call it “Windroid.” Dubbed X, X+, and XL, the models will sell for $122 or more and be available immediately in many countries.

The phones follow the $7.1 billion Microsoft acquisition (see “How Microsoft Might Benefit from the Nokia Deal” and “The Numbers in the Microsoft Nokia Deal are Telling”) and seem to be trying to be all things to all people. But even as they use an operating system based on the Android Open Source Project, you can’t tap the million-plus apps in Google’s Play store, or get popular Google apps such as Gmail and Chrome. Developers can modify Android apps to run on the devices, and Nokia will offer “hundreds of thousands” of apps in its app store, promised Nokia’s Stephen Elop, the executive vice president for devices and services.

Elsewhere in the cavernous conference halls in Barcelona, I stumbled across a less-heralded smartphone development. Russia’s Yotaphone has grafted a full-touch and higher-resolution E-Ink display on the back of its Android phone with a color screen on the front. The phone can be sitting on the table (color-side down, and in “sleep” mode), and the black-and-white dispay will use virtually no power as it updates, say, a sports score or alerts you that someone called or e-mailed. 

The new thing is that you can now swipe this black-and-white screen to discreetly open the e-mail. I tried it and noticed how slow and pixellated this process was. But who cares? You can check a quick e-mail at the dinner table without annoying everybody in the restaurant with your bright screen. And you can do some work on a long bus ride without worrying about the phone dying so fast. “There’s no need to ‘wake up’ your phone 150 times a day, and the battery will last twice as long,” CEO Vlad Marynov told me. He said the devices wouldn’t be on sale until the end of the year, though.

Marynov’s idea made sense to me. The Nokia package is impressive, but I couldn’t help noticing—after elbowing through the global bloggerati to get my thumbs on the various Nokia Android devices—that the screens would dim every few seconds if you weren’t touching them. It’s a reminder of what an Achilles’ heel batteries are, that these devices are programmed to dim so quickly. 

As a first impression, I got what Yotaphone is doing more than I got what Nokia is doing. But that’s just me.

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Tagged: Communications, Web, Mobile, Google, Microsoft, Nokia

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