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Nokia is back and beginning to rock

[This editorial was originally published in the Mobile Industry Review newsletter on the 20th February 2010. Make sure you get the editorials ahead of time by subscribing here — free.]

Change has come to Nokia and I’m excited at the prospect of what’s to come.

The Ballsy Choice

It was a ballsy choice to relocated Nokia’s entire Mobile World Congress (“MWC”) operations to the Spanish Institute for the Blind across the road from the Congress buildings instead of the usual massive stand within the event. Going to visit Nokia required a special trip. Indeed, you actually needed a dedicated pass to get in the door. Congress attendees couldn’t just walk in. By taking more or less the whole of the Institute, Nokia was able to control the entire experience but rank significant risk that no one would bother making the journey.

In the end, the Institute appeared busy and nearly packed most of the time Rafe and I were on site. That is good news. It’s not the only good news, though. But first, let’s put the good news in perspective.

The Dire Reputation of Nokia

Reading much of the North American media output over the past year, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Nokia was now an entirely irrelevant third-tier handset manufacturer — on par with those chaps who used to make really, really chap Sony Walkman knockoffs back in the 80s. Indeed many of the people I know view the mere mention of Nokia as an affront. The inclusion of Nokia in a discussion alongside competing brands is — I kid ye not — actually offensive to much of the media and the Bay Area Massive. Suggesting Nokia is still a leading industry player is often on par with suggesting that the Earth is flat.

Nokia has screwed up on many fronts. Many, many fronts. In some ways it’s been laughable. In other ways, lamentable. It’s been painful to watch.

And while many doomsayers (me included) have derided and often written off the company’s efforts, you can’t argue with the fact that Nokia still continues to make money and manufacturer millions upon millions of devices that are still being purchased. So if they’re still the biggest handset manufacturer, why the ridiculously poor market reputation?

The Finnish Culture: Help or Hindrance?

The company’s Finnish culture has really not helped. The calm, confident, intellectual manner of the Finns doesn’t match the brash, marketing-message-led-bravado of the North Americans. By refusing to engage in the playground chest-beating so popular with many of the other industry players, Nokia allowed the other kids to eat it’s lunch. The hold-your-head-up-high-whilst-they-hit-you strategy has not been working for them in the context of their (brand) reputation.

And whilst the company continued to dominate the marketplace numbers, it’s reputation has been shot to shreds by an eager, eager set of competitors who simply cannot believe that the biggest kid in the playground stands tall whilst they administer fist after fist.

I don’t know how, for example, Nokia allowed Steve Jobs to get away with his ‘we’re the biggest mobile manufacturer’ comment. But they did. It took Mark Squires, one of the company’s most talented social media head honchos to post a rebuttal. (Did you read it? It’s here: “A Fruit Confused “). Why Nokia didn’t set their EVPs on Apple and the media in response, I don’t know. I’m pleased Mark posted a response but I’d like to have seen more — a lot more. The company appears afraid of engaging, afraid of being too contentious or too outspoken. The entirely competent Executive team appear to have chosen to simply focus on the numbers, not on a mud-slinging match (setting aside the Apple legal spat). But as a result, their Western audience of customers, partners and influencers is crying out for any sign of life beyond the standard level of corporate communications.

It’s Not Just About Market Share

I understand that your average Indian doesn’t care about the Nokia brand as much as they care about getting a decent, reliable, capable device at a reasonable cost — something Nokia’s supply chain logistics are phenomenally well placed to deliver. However the Western executives working in the mobile industry are tremendously effected by the perspective marketed by Nokia’s competitors and the crowing media. This is why Nokia is being judged by many as completely irrelevant when it comes to applications. Despite accounting for a huge percentage of the handset sales in the West, the executives in charge authorise development for whatever they perceive to be popular. iPhone, Android, BlackBerry. One of the most effective ways to compete with Nokia is to simply ignore it. Or to make the company irrelevant. Nokia’s message is easily lost amidst jazzy devices, regular OS updates, funky applications and highly emotive smart public relations and advertising.

By all means go out and tell the planet that Nokia is a force for social change as the company’s CEO did earlier this year, extolling the virtues of delivering mobile computing to some of the poorest in the world. But the marketplace doesn’t need a reserved, silent, ‘wait and we will demonstrate’, quietly confident approach from Nokia. No. The marketplace needs fantastic devices, super innovation, excellent service evolution (at a fast pace) and super-eloquent, articulate and utterly compelling executives who can wield the company’s significant power and influence with alacrity and table-banging energy.

If you’ve followed my writing about the company over the past years, you’ll have watched descend into the same familiar malaise that effects many in the mobile industry when the subject of Nokia arises. I’ve been particularly hard on their Services division, especially the dire Ovi Store which, I’m glad to say is now slowly limping into the sunlight of usefulness. When it comes to the range and possibilities of their devices, I’ve been very depressed. I loved the N900 as a concept phone. I am a massive fan of their N86 style handsets. But I still can’t order toilet rolls on the train with a Nokia phone. Yet I can do that and a trillion other stupid/useful tasks on my iPhone at £0.59 a time. This is still hugely frustrating.

All Is Not Lost

Spending a week more or less full time with Rafe Blandford at MWC, however, can really change your perspective on Nokia. Rafe, Founder and Editor of All About Symbian, is one of the foremost external experts on Nokia and its ecosystem. Rafe and I were at MWC filming footage for both our sites. It turned out to be an excellent collaboration and I’m confident the content we’ll be publishing should prove very popular. It’s no exaggeration to say that Rafe knows Nokia better than some of the company’s own executives. I should say that whilst Symbian helped cover our costs to attend the event, we retain full editorial control.

Rafe put some highly uncomfortable questions to the executives whilst I concentrated on the filming. My overriding objective was to ensure we captured excellent content so a lot of the time, I remained behind the camera, sometimes popping out to ask one or two follow-up questions. The most interesting times were before and after each interview whilst we compared notes. I couldn’t hope to reach Rafe’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Nokia but I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘back-channel’ commentary he offered as we headed to the next executive interview.

That said, Nokia’s executives came out pretty well. One of the most exciting for me was sitting with Anssi Vanjoki, Executive VP of Markets for Nokia. Rumour has it that he’s been brought out to play by the company, having previously been locked away from the media. Well, I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy the footage of the chap. One of the key exchanges between Anssi and Rafe was over the N97 debacle.

The market has been seriously disappointed with the Nokia N97 teething problems mostly related to firmware. If you missed the details, essentially the handset was delivered into the market full of holes. This was disastrous for Nokia. Not only did the Western press absolutely slate the device (it sadly looks positively ancient next to an iPhone) but the consumer backlash was pretty vehement. I’ve known many die-hard Nokia fans move to Android recently because of this.

Change Has Come

There’s still a lot of love in the room for Nokia though. If only someone would start talking. If only someone senior from Nokia would stand up and start communicating. If only someone would put a rocket under the apparently stagnant Espoo Mafia.

If only someone would say, ‘yeah, we screwed up, we’ve learned, we’ve fixed it — and WAIT ’til you see what we’ve got for you soon!’

Guess what?

That’s what Anssi did.

Rafe and I came out of the interview in shock.

30 minutes with Anssi has transformed my perspective on Nokia. Neither of us have witnessed anything like it.

I wonder if it’ll do the same for you. It was thoroughly refreshing to witness a candid and direct response from one of Nokia’s top executives. Rafe and I are still deciding how best to edit and publish the videos, but rest assured there will be a ‘director’s cut’ of the full interview published too.

As I commented last week in one of my ipadio podcast updates, I sense a renewed sense of purpose and direction in Nokia, permeating all levels of the company, not least from the dynamic, energetic meeting with Anssi. The company appears to be getting there. I find myself broadly agreeing with their strategy (if not their timetable — quicker, quicker, quicker!). I really can see the future and power of Qt, Nokia’s all new cross-platform application UI framework that’ll run across Symbian, MeeGo and beyond. I’d like to see more of Anssi and I’d like to see more of Nokia’s executives hitting the road, telling the company’s stories and countering the considerable myths that have established themselves. And I’d like to see some super handsets. And faster service evolution.

I wonder if it’s too early to say that Nokia is out of the woods and marching toward some pretty exciting objectives? The Qt development framework really could change things dramatically for the company over the next few years.

We shall see. Meanwhile, I hope you’re having a decent weekend. Standby for the videos!


[This editorial was originally published in the Mobile Industry Review newsletter on the 20th February 2010. Make sure you get the editorials ahead of time by subscribing here — free.]

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