nimbuzz21 520x245 Indian operator Reliance puts messaging app Nimbuzz and Facebook hard keys on $42 phone

Nimbuzz is responding to increasing smartphone adoption in India after it jointly unveiled the first phone that sports a quick-access hard key to its mobile messaging service.

The phone is manufactured by Chinese firm Haier, but will be branded and sold by operator Reliance from Friday. The Reliance CG300, as it is called, is targeted at the mass market and will retail for just INR 2,499 ($42). That’s down to the fact it is powered by the J2ME platform rather than a more expensive platform like Android, though we understand that the price could drop below $40 in the future.

The BlackBerry-looking phone is fairly unremarkable. It includes a QWERTY keyboard, dual-SIM option and dedicated buttons that load Nimbuzz, which has 25 million of its 150 million registered users in India, and Facebook when pressed.

However, at a price point that nearly anyone can afford, Nimbuzz CEO Vikas Saxena is optimistic that the phone can rival entry-level Android devices (which are priced upwards of $100) to appeal to feature phone owners keen to upgrade, as well as smartphones owners intrigued by a dedicated messaging phone.

While Facebook is also present on the phone, Saxena says that social networks offer “a different experience” to dedicated messages services like Nimbuzz, and he doesn’t anticipate being overshadowed.

The hard key is not a new feature – HTC put a Facebook button on two devices back in 2011 with little success, while Nokia’s $72 Asha 210 has a WhatsApp button – but Saxena believes it will become a more common sight as messaging apps continue to replace the SMS experience for many.

Indeed, he says Nimbuzz is working on other devices with hard keys, although he declines to provide further detail. The aim is to provide a more engaging experience for existing users and battle rivals to drive new user signups.

India’s mobile messaging space is heating up with competitors. Japan-headquartered Line launched a local campaign this month, joining China’s WeChat and local services like BSB-backed Hike and Nimbuzz. WhatsApp, which has 250 million monthly active users worldwide, leads the pack in India.

The CG300 is the latest move that Nimbuzz has made to strengthen its relationship with carriers. In recent months the company has inked terms with Mobilink in Pakistan, Hutch in Sri Lanka and Aircel in India; Saxena says the company has partnered with eight telecom firms in India in total.

Saxena believes the device has the potential to sell “millions” of units, but it will remain an India only initiative.

“Like carriers embracing messaging apps, we’re experimenting with ideas to see what kind of retention and engagement ratio we can drive,” he explains. “The idea is to remove any friction and make the service easy to access.”

The device is Reliance branded and, though the operator is preparing a dedicated data plan to accompany it, it will work on any mobile network across the country.

nimbuzz2 730x434 Indian operator Reliance puts messaging app Nimbuzz and Facebook hard keys on $42 phone

Images via Nimbuzz