The WhatsApp-friendly Asha 210 is a reminder of Nokia’s low-end capabilities

WhatsApp should receive a boost in emerging markets through a Nokia(s nok) phone, announced on Wednesday, that features a dedicated hard key for the SMS rival.

The Asha 210, which will come in both single- and dual-SIM versions with retail prices starting at $72, has a physical QWERTY keyboard and is therefore well-suited to messaging and social networking services. The handset will come with a free subscription to WhatsApp, which usually costs $0.99 a year, and the service is also integrated with the 210’s phonebook.

“We are very excited about our partnership with Nokia Asha complementing our strategy of giving people around the world an easy experience when keeping in touch with their friends,” WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton said in a statement.

Like other Asha phones, the device runs the Series 40 operating system. Nokia started calling the touchscreen Asha phones (of which the 210 is not one) “smartphones” last year, much to the annoyance of some observers, but in some ways that was a fair move: after all, Series 40 handset owners also get to download apps from an app store that contains many of the offerings familiar from Android(s goog) and iOS(s aapl). The social experience that is the focus for many “proper” smartphone users can be found here too, albeit in a slightly cut-down fashion.

The Asha 210 comes preloaded with YouTube, Twitter and Facebook(s fb) (the recently-launched Asha 205 came with a dedicated Facebook button) and a 2MP camera with its own hard key. As with the 205, a feature called Slam makes it possible to share content with nearby Bluetooth phones without having to pair the devices. The phone’s battery lasts for up to 46 days on the single-SIM version, and up to 24 days on the dual-SIM version – you don’t see this kind of longevity on a typical touchscreen phone.

This is a great deal for WhatsApp, particularly as many of its key rivals – such as Tencent’s WeChat — are strongest in the emerging markets where Nokia’s low-end devices are sold. These alternatives can still be found in Nokia’s S40 app store, but users should be effectively steered in WhatsApp’s direction by the inclusion of the hard key. A reminder of the numbers here: WhatsApp may have 200 million users, making it “bigger than Twitter”, but WeChat has 300 million users.

And from the Nokia perspective, the Asha 210 is a reminder of what can be done with the now-aged S40 platform in certain markets. This device will be going up against very low-end Android phones, which offer a much wider range of apps but not necessarily better performance (and seriously, battery life is a major issue in many of these markets), and the soon-to-be-released Firefox OS phones, which are HTML5-only and as such an unknown quantity at this point. Given its social chops, the 210 will be a fairly impressive contender for many users.