Market: Nokia is still second fiddle

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With few new devices to excite the crowd and the announcement in run-up to the Nokia World 2010 that two big names were leaving, what did delegates make of Nokia’s future strategy and market position? David Pittman spoke to Nokia itself, suppliers, partners, retailers, developers and analysts to get their views

Nokia’s message of a return to form was made on the back of the launch of three new smartphones running the latest variant of Symbian and based on figures that show, by volume at least, Nokia remains the biggest mobile phone company in the world.

Nokia executive vice president for markets Niklas Savander of course was only presenting the keynote thanks to the quick-fire announcement that president and chief executive Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo was leaving to be replaced by Stephen Elop, the head of Microsoft’s business division and a new leader with a solid grounding in the software industry.

Software remains a major area of concern for Nokia with the continued rise of Android to rival its preferred Symbian operating system and the impending launch of devices supporting its MeeGo open source operating system.

Nokia vice president of technology management David Rivas said Elop’s background in software would have been a contributing factor to his appointment: “He brings deep software experience to the table which is a valuable thing and everyone’s excited by that.”

Rivas said the appointment comes at a time when Nokia is building momentum through the launch of new devices (chiefly, here, the N8 and E7) and software platforms (Symbian^3 and MeeGo), that “represent the clearest statement of intent we’ve provided to the market for a long time”.

Some might suggest the announcement from the head of Nokia’s mobile solutions unit Anssi Vanjoki, just 24 hours before the start of Nokia World 2010, that he is to leave the company undermines Rivas’ conviction, but he was unequivocal.

Rivas said: “There’s a real sense that we know where we’re going and we’re heading there at full speed. I’ve never seen such a determined and focused group of people. There are no questions being asked about what needs to be done, just how are we going to do it best.”

Nokia head of solution development sourcing André Brockmöller offered a similar view. “The message is more concrete this year,” he said. “Nokia is back.”

The view from outside Nokia is less positive, instead one of a large organisation attempting to amend its ways but with some way still to go.

Thibaut Rouffineau, vice president of developer partnerships at the Wireless Industry Partnership, said Nokia had shown it is on the right path with its new chief and a clearer strategy, but still needed to show humility.

Said Rouffineau: “It is starting to move forward but Nokia needs to acknowledge where its failures are and where it needs to change. There are signs that it has started, but Vanjoki’s presentation [of the new phones] showed no sign of humble pie having been eaten.”

Pasi Leino, partner at brand and strategy marketing firm Command Associates, who has worked with Nokia on projects since 1998, said: “Nokia is a big ship to turn, but its strengths are returning to the fore slowly, and it is regaining market presence.

“It’s not there yet but it is positive to hear that it is moving in the right direction.”

From the retail channel the opinion is the same. Darren Gardner, Carphone Warehouse director of new business and store formats in the UK and Europe, said: “Nokia has struggled in the UK market with competition from Samsung, LG and even Motorola but it is now making a serious play to consumers. It appears to have more purpose and a decent range of handsets that have been segmented.”

Of the new smartphones – the E7, C7, C6 and the already announced N8 – there was a mixed view on whether they would positively impact Nokia.

Nokia’s own Brockmöller was understandably upbeat and said: “The N8 will lead the smartphone market as it is a top-end device.”

Petteri Muilu, chief technology officer at Finnish cloud computing services developer Synble, was similarly positive of the impact the devices would have.

Said Muilu: “These are not killer devices but they are still good devices that look good, reach into new markets and create value in the Nokia brand.

“If they can deliver the sales that Nokia is promising [50 million] then I have high hopes.”

However, one Chinese component supplier, who works with both Nokia and Apple, said Nokia is still playing catch-up in the smartphone space, no matter what else it said.

The supplier, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: “The new phones are good but Nokia is definitely still playing catch-up. Apple has been extremely successful in this space and left Nokia in its wake.

“Nokia has a big installed customer base and a good range of products, but Apple is better at industrial design as its phones are seen as fashion accessories.”

Carphone Warehouse’s Darren Gardner said the E7 is likely to cause a stir in the enterprise market but the N8 will come under intense pressure from other high-end entertainment phones, such as the iPhone and HTC’s new Desire HD and Desire Z, both running Android.

Others noted that Nokia’s strengths lie away from the smartphone handset market and are supported by its global reach.

For Vodafone Hungary strategic planning expert Viktor Csala, who was attending Nokia World 2010 in a personal capacity, Nokia had done well in laying down a strategy including feature phones targeting global markets.

“The emphasis seems to be on being everywhere and having lots of phones for different markets. It is a strength that Nokia is emphasising feature phones as smart devices that are widely accessible, especially in emerging markets.”

Kamal Quadir, chief executive officer of Bangladeshi mobile commodities marketplace Cell Bazaar, was likewise pleased with Nokia’s focus on feature phones for emerging markets and added that services and applications being developed exclusively for such regions would be a boost.

Quadir said: “Developing markets are more interested in the services they can get than the phones. They want financial services to help businesses grow. Nokia is talking to the market and understanding its needs.”

Mobile educational services are another area where developments are being made, and David Atchoarena, director of the education, strategies and capacity building division of the UN educational, scientific and cultural organisation (UNESCO), said Nokia is in a strong position to help boost the proliferation of mobile education services in developing countries.

Atchoarena said he was at Nokia World to see the latest developments in the field of mobile education, such as the Spiral Education app that allows management of pupil registers via mobile.

Said Atchoarena: “Nokia is already active in this area and has some education initiatives in markets such as Asia, India, Africa and South Africa. They have the experience and technical know-how to take advantage of these needs.”

Rouffineau said: “Nokia is rethinking its service strategy and focusing it on emerging markets. Things like the Intuit strategic alliance are an aggressive move by Nokia and it is no longer sitting back and taking the flack it was receiving before.”

Leino added: “Nokia has a different take on the industry to others as it has a much wider customer base across more segments worldwide. This makes it much tricker for Nokia to manage its portfolio but there is some positive feeling about what it is doing at the moment.”n

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