The physical embodiment of the more humble, mobile and cloud-focused Microsoft debuted last week for $129.
It’s the Nokia Lumia 635 smartphone, and you already can find one even cheaper if you shop around a bit.
The Lumia 635 isn’t a dazzling device pushing the envelope of mobile computing with a huge screen, stellar camera or tricky special effects. It also suffers a bit from cost-cutting moves. But it could still become one of the world’s best-selling phones in the coming year.
Fans of high-end handsets should feel free to scoff and go back to speculating about what Apple will offer in the iPhone 6.
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But the Lumia 635 is significant in a number of ways, and it’s an intriguing option for people who want a cheap but decent smartphone that’s not locked into an expensive wireless contract.
It’s also the first phone sold with Microsoft’s latest mobile operating system — Windows Phone 8.1.
Microsoft packs the phone with online services on which it’s betting its future, including the Bing-powered “Cortana” virtual assistant, a cloud-synchronized version of Office, Skype and an online storage locker and file-sharing service.
The lowly 635 is also the first Lumia phone launched since Microsoft went all-in on mobile devices and bought Nokia’s phone business for $7.2 billion in April.
It’s the successor to a wildly successful phone you may never heard of, the Nokia Lumia 520 that went on sale early last year for about $100.
Since then, the 520 has sold more than 12 million units and helped Microsoft overtake BlackBerry and pull firmly into third place among smartphone platforms, behind Android and iPhone.
The 520 helped make Windows Phone the No. 2 mobile platform in 14 overseas markets and helped it outsell the iPhone in 24 markets, said Microsoft Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner.
In the U.S., the 520 — particularly the 521 variant sold by T-Mobile — has given Microsoft critical mass in the smartphone market.
The devices also helped lower the entry-level price of smartphone ownership over the past year, offering Microsoft’s full mobile operating system and its cloud-service bundle on a 4G device that’s sold outright for under $100.
Combined with a discount wireless plan — such as the $30 per month unlimited data offering T-Mobile sells through Walmart — and you’ll get the smartphone experience for about $400 per year.
That’s about two-thirds less than what people generally pay to use the latest, high-end phones.
Microsoft also offers premium devices, including the big and sleek Lumia Icon sold by Verizon, with a pricier, two-year contract.
But high-volume, low-price phones are the company’s biggest opportunity to broaden its presence in the “mobile-first, cloud-first” world that Chief Executive Satya Nadella describes.
Low-end phones are also a way to hook as many people as possible into Microsoft’s cloud services, where the relationship will touch every device the customer owns and is likely to continue as they upgrade to new phones in the future.
Stephen Elop, vice president of Microsoft’s device business, highlighted this strategy in a memo explaining last week’s layoffs and restructuring.
“In the near term we plan to drive Windows Phone volume by targeting the more affordable smartphone segments, which are the fastest-growing segments of the market, with Lumia,” he wrote to employees.
This isn’t a new strategy. Microsoft’s past success came from offering products that were more Toyota Camry than BMW 7 Series. A BMW is nicer, but the Camry is fine and far more people drive one.
We’ll have to see if this approach works again as the smartphone market evolves, prices fall and hardware becomes less important than services.
For those already using a Lumia 521, the 635 is a slight upgrade.
The phone is a little bigger, with a 4.5-inch display vs. the 4-incher on the 521, and has a more modern, beveled edge that echoes the design of Microsoft’s Surface tablets.
Its glass is smoother to the touch than the 521, on which my fingers seemed to drag a bit when playing games like “Wordament,” and the case feels a bit less plasticky.
The 635 also has a longer battery life and a more powerful processor, with four cores instead of two.
It also has motion sensors that work with health apps so you can use the phone as a fitness monitor to keep track of steps.
But Microsoft made trade-offs to keep the price low. With the 635, it did away with the handy dedicated camera-shutter button that’s become a trademark feature of Windows phones. It also uses a low-end 5 megapixel camera that’s fine for snapshots but not much more.
Neither the 635 or the 521 has front-facing cameras, so they’re not good choices if you’re into taking selfies. Oddly, the 635 still comes with a selfie-editing app — Nokia Glam Me — preloaded “above the fold” on the home screen.
The 635’s navigation buttons are also part of the touch screen, instead of being part of the hardware chassis, as they were on the 521. The bottom quarter-inch of the display is now taken up by the home, back and search keys, so you only get a quarter-inch more screen real estate than the 521.
On some apps, the navigation buttons are now too close to the app controls. In the email app, the email search “magnifying glass” icon is now just an eighth-inch away from the magnifying glass used to conduct Web searches. It’s easy to hit the wrong one when trying to search through email.
Microsoft’s also changed the behavior of the overall search button. If you’ve activated the nifty Cortana virtual assistant, that’s what launches when you press “search.”
You can ignore Cortana; keep pressing the button until the search box appears and then type a query. Maybe I don’t have the hang of it yet, but I think people will just deactivate Cortana if she gets in the way of “old fashioned” text searches.
Cortana’s a highlight of the Windows Phone 8.1 software, which is being delivered as an update to Windows phones this summer and will run even on the dual-core Lumia 521.
AT&T will start selling the 635 next week for $139, or $99 through its prepaid GoPhone service.
T-Mobile began selling the 635 last week for $168, or $7 per month on a 24-month installment plan. But Microsoft is selling the phone online and from its stores for $129 and some MetroPCS stores are selling it for $99.
They can be unlocked after 40 days of use on T-Mobile.
When Microsoft first unveiled the 635 in April, it talked up the rainbow of case colors available. But the phone’s generally sold with a white back, with swappable, color cases available as a $15 upgrade.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is selling off the 520 series for $59 to $69.
At this end of the market in the mobile-first, cloud-first world, the phones are cheap but nothing’s free.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or email@example.com