On Wednesday morning in London, Nokia(s nok) will kick off its anual Nokia World event with a keynote by Stephen Elop, the former Microsoft(s msft) executive that took the CEO role at Nokia in September of last year. The overall agenda for the two-day event is filled with discussions and forums on a wide range of mobile topics such as location services, handset design, the next billion mobile web users and more. But make no mistake: Elop’s keynote is the crown jewel; both his speech and the Nokia smartphones he’ll introduce will define the company’s next few years.
Goodbye Symbian, hello Windows Phone
Much of this year’s Nokia World was set in motion by events that took place in February. At the time, facing smartphone sales that weren’t keeping pace with the overall market, Nokia announced it would use Microsoft’s Windows Phone as the primary platform for smartphones going forward. Since then, Nokia has taken the risk of transitioning its device lineup to support Windows Phone, yet no hardware has been officially announced.
That’s set to change tomorrow, with at least three Windows Phone handsets built by Nokia. A few designs and details have leaked out in advance, with the WinRumors site showing pictures of the Lumia 710 and Lumia 800. The rounded-corner 710 has been reported prior with the code-name Sabre while the 800 is known as Sea Ray. The Nokia Blog, an enthusiast site, also has an alleged early spec sheet on the Nokia 900, which based on that appears to have higher-performing hardware over the other handsets.
The Lumia 800 looks extremely similar to, if not the same as, the Nokia N9 hardware. I had a chance to use an N9 for short time — with MeeGo, not Windows Phone — and walked away with the opinion that its among the nicest and well-designed smartphone hardware I’ve ever used. Nokia’s issue has never been one of hardware; the company was slow to mature its software and Microsoft’s platform resolves that problem, based on my usage of Windows Phone.
Nokia’s Symbian phones will see support from the company for a few years yet and the operating system has seen updates in the form of Anna and, more recently, Belle. I don’t expect Nokia to show off any brand new Symbian-powered hardware, however. I think it would actually be a mistake to take the focus off of Nokia’s long-term smartphone strategy with Microsoft as a partner.
Availability dates and distribution
There’s little doubt these new Windows Phone handsets will be the stars of the show, but how long before they shine? Nokia has repeatedly exercised the bad habit of publicly showing off new phones but taking months to get them on store shelves. Nokia’s N8, the first with a much-improved version of Symbian, was introduced in April 2010, but didn’t arrive until October of that year.
And once the N8 arrived, my review found the device was two steps forward but one step back due to software features that weren’t optimized. It took another few months before these were addressed in a software update, but by then the market had moved on. So too did Nokia, because it was around this time that it abandoned a future with Symbian.
Elop has recognized this issue of market timing between announcements and product delivery, so many will be interested to hear when the new Windows Phones will ship. There are rumors of Nokia missing the holiday season with its new phones, and if that does happen, it would be a huge disappointment given the cyclical nature of the handset market. Would it doom the company? No, because there is still plenty of opportunity in a market where not even one-quarter of the world’s population owns a smartphone. But missing the important holiday season would likely flatten morale during Nokia’s comeback.
Distribution channels are equally as important as availability dates, if not more so. Yes, there are always consumers who consider switching mobile device platforms, but it’s easier to get new customers when they’re buying their first smartphone. Why? There are platform lock-in costs associated with existing handsets. Put another way: Which is more likely to buy a new Windows Mobile phone; someone that’s already spent a few hundred dollars on iOS (s AAPL) or Android (s GOOG) apps, or someone that hasn’t yet invested in a mobile platform?
That could mean Nokia first targets areas where smartphone adoption isn’t yet high and therefore put a country like the U.S. on the back burner for availability since we’re nearing a 50 percent adoption rate here. I’m sure Microsoft doesn’t want to the U.S. to be passed over for Nokia-designed Windows Mobile phones, so this will be an interesting scenario as we see how Nokia handles it. My guess? Nokia focuses first on regions that have reasonably mature mobile broadband infrastructure and areas where it has high brand awareness like Europe and Asia.
Will Micro-kia pay off?
Obviously, this is a question that time will answer, but even before the official Nokia World event takes place, I think the bet on Windows Phone will pay off for Nokia. The Symbian platform was years ahead back in its day, but was leapfrogged by more intuitive, touch-driven interfaces. It was simply taking Nokia too long to have a viable software competitor. By adopting Windows Phone, Nokia “re-enters” the smartphone game with a mature mobile platform and a solid ecosystem.
Likewise, Microsoft gained a huge manufacturing partner with global reach to help showcase its platform on well designed hardware. In its first iteration, Windows Phone was lacking some key features, but with the new Mango software update, it’s actually fun and effective. Given the right hardware to show it off, Microsoft looks to gain important market share, which in turn makes the platform more appealing to third-party developers.
If all goes as planned — in a timely fashion — this hardware/software combination will be a win for both companies. It allows Microsoft to shed the stigma of stodginess from its Windows Phone days, which were effectively ended by Apple’s iPhone. And it lets Nokia dust itself off from the fall it’s taking from the top smartphone maker to be surpassed by Apple and Samsung. “Micro-kia” products were such a radical idea when first announced in February, but come tomorrow, we’ll see for sure if the teamwork brings smartphone synergy.