(Reuters) - Nokia will start to sell a new range of smartphones using Microsoft software in China from April, seeking to claw back market share it has seen gobbled up by Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd.
Nokia has designed the phones to appeal to Chinese customers in particular, making it easy to connect to microblogging and text-messaging platforms, which are wildly popular in China.
China has become one of the hottest growing markets for smartphone makers. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook is in Beijing for talks with government officials amid problems for Apple there ranging from labor issues to a contested iPad trademark.
Nokia's move will be an important test for the Windows Phone, which has so far had limited appeal. Nokia, the world's largest cellphone maker by volume, is reliant on the success of the Windows model after dumping its own smartphone software platforms last year.
Nokia Chief Executive Stephen Elop unveiled two models based on the Lumia 610 and Lumia 800 cellphones but designed for Chinese networks, which will go on sale initially through China Telecom, the nation's third-largest carrier.
The Lumia 800C will be sold without a carrier contract for 3,599 yuan ($573) from April, Elop said. Pricing for the 610C, to launch in China in the second quarter and intended as an entry-level phone to bring younger users to Nokia Windows phones, will be announced later.
Nokia also plans to bring its 700, 800 and 900 models to the China market, and they will eventually run on all three of China's mobile networks, including China Mobile and China Unicom, said Colin Giles, Nokia's executive vice president for global sales.
He would not give a time frame for their introduction to the Chinese market, for which they are specifically designed. We've invested heavily in China, Giles told reporters. We're creating innovation in China for China, which a number of our competitors aren't doing.
Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight in London, said: This is an encouraging step into the burgeoning China market.
Shares in Nokia rose 3.6 percent to 4.14 euros, boosted after Sweden's Swedbank lifted its rating on the stock to buy from neutral.
Nokia has lost its No. 1 position in the Chinese mobile handset market to Samsung, with Samsung at 24.3 percent and Nokia 19.6 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, according to market researcher Gartner.
China's Huawei Technologies and ZTE stood at 12.6 percent and 11.1 percent, respectively, with Apple a small but buzz-grabbing 7.5 percent.
Nokia and Microsoft's biggest challenge this year will be getting heard above the noise of Apple's iPhone, which has also launched recently on the same China Telecom network for the first time, said Neil Mawston of researcher Strategy Analytics.
Microsoft has the backing of Nokia for its Windows Phones, but is struggling to get equal support from other handset makers such as Samsung, which are focused on their Android offerings.
Microsoft's share of the smartphone market fell to just 2 percent last quarter, from 3 percent a year ago and 13 percent four years earlier, Strategy Analytics said.