Nokia (NYSE: NOK) CEO Stephen Elop was long on the military metaphors during his company’s press conference at CES 2012, speaking of the need to “establish a beachhead” in the U.S. with his company’s new Windows Phone strategy and how life has changed in mobile from “a battle of devices to a war of ecosystems.” He then introduced the primary weapon in his arsenal: the Lumia 900, a device that a legendary mobile company desperately needs to be a hit in a hostile country.
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to call the U.S. “hostile” to Nokia, but hey, he picked the metaphor. The plain truth is that Nokia’s early lead in the worldwide smartphone market with Symbian never factored into the mobile equation in the U.S. at all, thanks to widespread adoption of BlackBerrys and Treos followed by iPhones and Droids. Nokia sold plenty of basic phones in the U.S. a decade ago but could never make the smartphone leap in this country.
For a long time the U.S. was so woefully behind Europe in 3G mobile data networks that sophisticated smartphones were wasted on us Yanks. But things change very fast in this market, and now that the U.S. is leading the charge with 4G technology and revolutionized the smartphone market exactly five years ago today with the unveiling of the iPhone, no mobile company that wants to operate at scale can afford to fail in the U.S.
Enter the Lumia 900, a phone “designed for the North American consumer,” Elop said. Nokia finally delivered on promises to put its own stamp on a Windows Phone design, beefing up the Lumia 800 with a sturdier battery to accommodate AT&T’s 4G LTE network and cutting content deals with American powerhouses like ESPN (NYSE: DIS), CNN, and Sesame Street. Nokia even went so far as to hook up with Univision, which announced apps for the iPhone and Android earlier in the day, ensuring Windows Phone would keep pace with one of the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S.
The result is a phone that immediately provoked a strong reaction (in a good way) from a pack of media types who are still measuring every new smartphone against the iPhone. It’s definitely early: Elop didn’t announce pricing and there’s a reason phone reviewers spend ample time with a device before making a call one way or another.
But, in a way, this is Nokia’s U.S. opportunity to lose. There is demand for something that isn’t the iPhone, and Android rose to the top of the U.S. market share lead thanks in part to a huge boom in sales over the latter part of 2010 and into early 2011. Those people will soon start to come to the end of their two-year contracts and might be inclined to switch, especially those who bought their first smartphone because of Android and might have a more informed opinion about what matters most to them.
There’s one problem, however. Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) doesn’t make an iPhone for the U.S., an iPhone for the U.K., an iPhone for Kenya, or an iPhone for Japan. It makes an iPhone. Apple definitely focused on the U.S. customer when it first launched the phone, but it hasn’t radically altered the design in order to serve different market constituencies around the world, and doesn’t make low-end products. It just sells the older version at a discount after the new model emerges.
It’s quite possible that no one else is capable of pulling off Apple’s approach, which is a point often missed by Apple supporters when they wonder why no one else follows Apple’s go-it-alone method. But Nokia is trying a tricky balance: instead of dictating terms to carriers like Apple or bending over backwards to meet their needs like Android, Nokia and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) are trying to have it both ways by exerting as much control over the hardware and software as possible while still building different phones to serve the market-segment needs of carriers.
If the phone is good enough, it won’t matter how complicated Nokia’s U.S. strategy has become. With Research in Motion (NSDQ: RIMM) in disarray for yet another year, there is a huge opportunity to fill that gap in the U.S. mobile market and Nokia has proven it can make eye-catching designs married with the right content deals and innovative mobile software.
But fancy plans don’t win wars. Boots on the ground win wars.