Revolution in Nokia’s head


Taking charge of one of the largest sales divisions of the biggest phone manufacturer on the planet, just as a recession bites and handset sales slump, might appear a daunting task.

But Mark Loughran (pictured), who took the UK managing director role from Simon Ainslie at the start of the year following a two-month handover period, can hardly keep the smile from his face.

His first proper outing is to unveil to the British press and public Nokia’s debut touchscreen phone, the 5800 ‘Tube’, which arrived last month, a full 15 months after Apple blew the  market wide open with its first iPhone touchscreen device.

Loughran, of course, approves of Nokia’s timing on this. He dismisses the criticism of its speed-to-market. “We chose our time really well. We could have rushed out before Christmas into the big prepay market but we didn’t. It’s allowed us to build up to the launch and do a good job,” he says.

“It’s not about rushing. Generally, there were some usability issues with other manufacturers’ early [touchscreen] versions. As a brand known for the usability and the strength of its user interface, it wouldn’t have been a good idea for us to have snapped and responded to the rush.

“A natural, intuitive, easy user experience might seem like a small thing but it’s not. The development and understanding you need for that is huge and it’s really important.”

Steady-as-she-goes, then, is Nokia’s stated approach to the changing handset market place. It claims to be unwilling to sacrifice the principles on which it built its success, chiefly the ease of use of its devices, just to keep up appearances.

But that should be taken in context of behind-the-scenes changes.

Early user reviews of the 5800 suggest, in fact, it is a stop-gap device, with its overdue Series 60 5th Edition platform adapted to run applications on a larger, high-resolution touchscreen until its Symbian Foundation open-source initiative bears proper fruits later this year.

Indeed, many reckon the N97, due in Q2, will be the device that best shows off the new platform.

Also, Nokia is agitating for change in the market. So, where it hasn’t simply punted out such touchscreen handsets to cater to the space newbie handset brand Apple now leads, it has looked to go beyond straight manufacturing to reinvent itself as software and services company in the Apple mould.

Its Comes With Music digital download service, a kind of iTunes subscription model for mobile phone users, has certainly ruffled network operator feathers. They are not used to handset makers potentially competing with them as service providers, afterall.

The first version of the 5800 does not feature Comes With Music, just as the debut N96 didn’’t. Loughran denies its omission has anything to do with the networks’ apparent reluctance to carry the service.

But the 5800’s key pricepoint and profile – mass market, free on £25 contracts – would clearly be compromised in sales terms if it supported Comes With Music at launch and the network operators declined it, or if its price was forced up by inclusion of the service.

“It is important first to get the execution right, to get the marketing right and to really help people understand its functionality and features,” says Loughran, whose UK division is the first to launch the Comes With Music service in any Nokia market.

“We are revolutionising how people purchase music in the UK. It”s all about timing; we haven’t just rushed it out. It’s a big strategic move for us and it will take some time to build the momentum.”

Full version of article in Mobile News issue 432 (February 9, 2009)

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