Nokia overhauls Asha operating system, adds in-app payments

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Nokia (NYSE:NOK) unveiled an updated version of its low-cost Asha platform, promising developers an open, standards-based environment for creating applications targeting consumers in emerging markets.

Asha--which leverages technologies developed by Smarterphone, which Nokia acquired in late 2011--touts a smartphone-caliber user experience optimized for limited-resource hardware. In addition to the new Nokia Asha Software Development Kit 1.0, which includes a suite of tools to build, test, package and deploy Java apps, Nokia is also releasing a Web Development Environment, Web Inspector for debugging and inspecting elements in Web apps and a new Web Designer Tool for improving the user experience.

Nokia also announced new in-app payment capabilities allowing developers to offer premium virtual goods and content within Asha applications. Nokia In-App Payment will also be available for existing Asha and other Series 40 phones. The manufacturer will release a public beta of Nokia In-App Payment in the coming weeks; developers can sign up here.

Nokia states that developer and publisher partners including Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Twitter, CNN, ESPN, foursquare, Line, LinkedIn, Nimbuzz, The Weather Channel, Electronic Arts and Gameloft have already built Asha apps and games or have Asha projects in the pipeline.

Nokia is rolling out the Asha OS in conjunction with the new Asha 501 smartphone. The device includes two main screens, Home and Fastlane: The former offers a conventional, icon-based view for launching individual apps or accessing specific features, while the latter presents recently accessed contacts, social networks and apps, all unique to each user. The Asha 501 also preloads the Nokia Xpress Browser, which compresses Internet data by up to 90 percent.

The Asha 501 is slated to begin shipping next month, priced below $100 U.S. It will be available across roughly 60 operators in more than 90 international markets. Nokia said it expects to sell 100 million new-generation Asha phones over the coming years. Some analysts have questioned Nokia's commitment to low-cost smartphones targeting developing nations, however, citing the worldwide proliferation of bargain-priced, feature-rich devices running Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) open-source Android OS.

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