Nokia And Microsoft’s ‘Special Partnership’ Just Another Windows Phone

It was supposed to be a unique partnership: two giants of the tech world coming together to jump-start their mobile strategies and develop products greater than the sum of their two parts. Instead, what Nokia (NYSE: NOK) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) unveiled Wednesday looks an awful lot like Nokia’s previous hardware designs with a fairly stock Windows Phone Mango build: in other words, a phone will be hard-pressed to revive either company’s fortunes amid a fiercely competitive mobile market.

Nokia unveiled the Lumia 800 and Lumia 710 at an event earlier today in London, eight months after signing a landmark deal with Microsoft to build future phones based on the Windows Phone operating system. Given the short amount of time between the signing of the deal and Wednesday’s event, it’s perhaps not that surprising that the two companies failed to come up with something visionary, but it is still notable that for all of Nokia’s worries about becoming “just another Android vendor,” it released something very similar to the other phones launched over the past few weeks for the Mango update to Windows Phone.

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop didn’t see it that way. “We believe it is the first ever instantiation of the Windows Phone platform that properly embodies, complements and amplifies the design sensibilities of Windows Phone,” he said in remarks earlier in the day from London.

But only three apps specific to Nokia are present on the Lumia devices and only two of them were ready at launch: Nokia Drive, a custom maps and navigation application that can provide turn-by-turn directions, and Nokia Music/Mix Radio. Nokia and Microsoft also worked together on a custom ESPN (NYSE: DIS) application that will be capable of some cool things, according to Nokia representatives holding briefings at the company’s offices in Sunnyvale, California on Wednesday, but it’s not ready for prime time.

And the Lumia 800 is essentially the same phone as the Nokia N9. That’s certainly not a bad thing, as the N9 is a nice phone, but nor does it stand out from the pack compared to Windows Phone community, recent Android releases, or the iPhone 4S.

This is sort of the core problem for Nokia and Microsoft these days in mobile. Each company definitely brings something to the table (Nokia’s hardware design, Microsoft’s critically acclaimed OS) but the world has not responded to either of those approaches separately. And slapping the two together without creating any sort of new mobile experience doesn’t seem to be the best way to change that given how much ground they have to make up in order to match Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and the Android community.

Back in February, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer promised a lot more. “Nokia and Microsoft intend to jointly create market-leading mobile products and services designed to offer consumers, operators and developers unrivalled choice and opportunity,” the companies said in a press release. “Additionally, Nokia and Microsoft plan to work together to integrate key assets and create completely new service offerings, while extending established products and services to new markets.”

That didn’t happen Wednesday. Nokia is launching the Lumia devices just in Europe over the next few months, holding off on a U.S. introduction until 2012. It’s quite possible that some of the joint projects referenced back in February by the company simply weren’t ready for this first introduction and could surface in 2012.

To be clear, the Lumia devices–especially the 800–are extremely solid Windows Phone products and early reaction to the devices was favorable. But neither were gadget reviewers blown away by their first impressions of the Nokia and Microsoft’s device, and that’s the problem for both Nokia and Microsoft. To be seen at the forefront of the mobile phone market again, they have to come up with something that changes the game.

Someone is going to develop a Third Way in mobile that resonates with the public, and given RIM’s struggles and HP’s capitulation, there’s strong reason to believe that Nokia and Microsoft are going to be the ones who generate excitement amid consumers and developers for something that’s not iOS and not Android. Elop certainly believes this: “It’s now a three-horse race,” he said in February.

With all due respect to Nokia and Microsoft’s work on the Lumia devices, that statement is still premature. By the time the first-year anniversary of their partnership rolls around next February, Nokia and Microsoft will be under significant pressure to produce a hit.