Samsung’s REX series aims to take on Nokia’s Asha but misses the point

Samsung today announced its REX series of feature phones, which intend to take on Nokia’s Asha range. Unlike Nokia, which calls its Asha full-touch devices smartphones, Samsung correctly calls its REX series as smart feature phones, considering it is based entirely on Java. While some of the phones in the series, especially the REX 90, share design cues with Samsung’s Galaxy S III and feel very premium for its price, there is no real reason for the products to exist apart from having something in the portfolio to counter Nokia’s Asha series.

Unlike Nokia, which seems to be investing both time and R&D dollars on taking the S40 platform a few steps further than what it was originally built for, the Java-based REX phones have no future path. “As far as S40 goes, think of it as if it had been sleeping all this while and has just woken up. We are working to make it even better and there is lot more to come. We are also getting many big developers to make apps for Asha series,” Calin Turcanu, the head of Nokia’s mobile phone division for Middle East and Africa, told me earlier this week at the global launch of the Asha 310.

The REX series, on the other hand is severely limited by its operating system and there is very little Samsung can do to improve the experience. Samsung also does not have a content story in place – it does not have a huge music store (Samsung typically ties up wih Hungama for its music offering in India) and it does not have any navigation or location play either. In other words, I don’t see these REX phones any different from Samsung’s Star and Pop series, which it introduced a few years ago. And there is nothing that app developers can do to give users a better experience, which is close to smartphones.

Considering how far Samsung was able to go with creating an ecosystem with its Bada operating system, which was more scalable and had more scope for apps and services, I don’t see any way that the Korean vendor can take the REX series’ experience a few notches above its current state.

Samsung knows a Rs 5,000 Android smartphone cannot give the same experience as Nokia’s Asha and it did not have any other in-house platform that could do what Nokia’s ageing but still alive S40 did with the Asha phones. I don’t see the REX series surviving very long, though it would do well initially if we consider Samsung’s marketing muscle and the push it would give to counter Asha full-touch phones. But it certainly has no future when it comes to addressing the needs of the consumer or taking them to the next level.

Photograph: Rohit Sharma