Nokia may be rolling out its flagship Lumia 800 smartphone to markets around the world, including Australia, but the question remains whether it will be the device that will save the company.
The Finnish handset vendor has been in the doldrums ever since upstart Apple released its ubiquitous iPhone in 2007 and quickly grew to dominate the market before having to have to face off with Google’s Android platform.
Much has been written about the rise of the iPhone and the fall of handset makers such as Nokia, and to some degree Motorola, BlackBerry and others, but there is no denying that Nokia’s smartphone offerings, and indeed its past regular handsets, have lacked the “cool” factor that has become synonymous with the iPhone.
However, while companies like Nokia might bemoan the fact that their devices just aren’t “as cool” as Apple’s, the bigger issue is that their overall approach to smartphones has so far been haphazard at best.
After numerous false starts, Nokia released its Symbian^3 "Anna" smartphone OS in 2011 to little fanfare and even less market enthusiasm.
The problem with Nokia’s smartphone endeavour was that it repeated the same issue that other smartphone OS’s made: it was sluggish, clunky, unresponsive, and ultimately unappealing.
While industry pundits are obsessed with the iPhone “cool factor” and how it contributed to the success of the device, the fact is that the iPhone became popular for the simple fact that it was easy to use, and featured technology and an OS that was immediately responsive to touch.
The last point in particular had tended to be overlooked by smartphone vendors such as Nokia in the past, and continues to be overlooked to a certain degree.
With the media and public’s expectations attuned to a responsive experience set forth by the iPhone as early as its 3G iteration in 2007, the bar of what constitutes a “good smartphone experience” has been quite high for some time and will only get higher as Apple continues to innovate with each new model of its smartphone.
In the past, users put up with sub par phone experiences just because that was the norm, but what Apple proved to the public with its iPhone, and indeed a growing amount of its consumer products, was that technology does not have to be clunky and a chore to use.
Apple’s products have instilled this new level of courage of customers, one that has manifested in consumers voting with their wallet for iPhones over smartphone offerings by Nokia and other competitors.
Perhaps realising the folly of its ways, as well as that its strengths have always tended to lie in technology over software, Nokia swallowed its pride with the failure of Symbian^3 and decided to adopt Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform for its smartphones going forward.
The move was met with mixed reactions by both the press and the public, but it was overwhelmingly seen as a good decision in what has been a long series of missteps.
However, the question at the time of the announcement in 2010 continues to be the same now as the Finnish developer bring its Windows Phone-based devices to the market: Is it enough to save Nokia?
Nokia as a business has continued to bleed money off the back of its failed smartphone endeavours, but the introduction of its Lumia line of phones in Europe and Asia last year should have been a watershed moment for the company.
While Nokia has announced that it has sold “over one million” Windows Phone units since launching the device late last year, an impressive number for the company considering its past disappointments, the news comes at a time when the Finnish handset vendor has posted a $US1.38 billion fourth-quarter net loss.
The loss was attributed by the company to a sales slump of 21 per cent, the net revenue in its mobile phones and its network divisions falling, and sales of Nokia smartphones experiencing a 23 per cent drop, which comes as a surprise considering the Lumia range went on sale in two large markets last year.
While one million Lumia devices sold in just over two months on the market may sound impressive on paper, when it is compared to the 37 million of its iPhones Apple sold in 2011, one realises how big the gulf is between the new conqueror and the former king of mobile phones.
No one is expecting Nokia to be like Apple and replicate the iPhone’s success with the Lumia range, but one thing is for certain: Nokia will need to pull in some impressive numbers for the Lumia in 2012 or face an uncertain future in the smartphone space.
Nokia has an excuse for the Lumia’s slow start in 2011, since it was launched quite late in the year, but as the Windows Phone-based devices get rolled out in more markets early this year, it would be unusual if Nokia, and by extension consumers, would see 2012 as a “make or break” year for the vendor.
In its favour, devices such as the Lumia 800 have a stylish design and come packed in with all the features and technology that have enabled Microsoft’s smartphone platform to dig its own niche among consumers.
The Lumia 800 is not an iPhone killer, and Nokia has been wise not to position it as such, but on the surface the device has the technology and design that will make it a good Windows Phone.
However, therein lies the crux with the Lumia range, as by adopting Microsoft’s OS it will be not only in competition with smartphones using other OS’s such as Android and BlackBerry, but also with other Windows Phone devices.
While the lax restrictions of the Android platform has created a clear divide between high powered and entry level devices, Microsoft’s draconic control of its proprietary Windows Phone platform has meant that the few vendors that have been given permission to use the OS have had to conform to strict specifications set by the company.
This has meant that there are less Windows Phone devices on the market than for example Android, and it has also made points of differentiation between devices few and far between.
For example, the HD7 by Taiwanese vendor HTC has already been on the market for over a year and provides a smooth and problem free Windows Phone 7 experience.
Microsoft’s strict specifications have meant that the Lumia 800 does more or less the same, though the difference being that the device comes in a different exterior.
While Nokia is attempting diffirentiate its device with exclusive services such as Nokia Drive, a fully-fledged personal navigation device (PND), and Mix Radio, a free music streaming service, it remains to be seen whether they will be enough to tempt customers to adopt the device over other established Windows Phone offerings.
What Nokia is betting on is that the recognition and loyalty that customers had to the company brand in the past will get Lumia into the hands of users quicker than other vendors, though even this might be a questionable tactic, considering the beating the Nokia brand has weathered the last few years due to failed smartphone implementations and the resulting financial loses.
At this point the Lumia range looks to have the right ingredients to enable the smartphones to success, though whether the level of success these devices will enjoy in 2012 and beyond is enough to save the company and bring it back to prominence remains yet to be seen.
Nokia may be convinced it has the best Windows Phone 7 device on its hands with the Lumia 800, but ultimately it will be the customers who will decide whether they prefer it over another Windows Phone.
That is, if they have not already decided to buy Apple’s iPhone.