What exactly is holding Nokia back from introducing an iconic smartphone in the U.S. market?
It’s not as if Nokia has been completely absent from the U.S. market. Historically speaking, it provided one of the first (if not the first) handset that sold remarkably well for AT&T Wireless when it first launched Digital One Rate plan back in the 1990s. Since that time, it also has offered CDMA versions of phones, so it’s not as if it is incapable of producing for CDMA.
The problem goes back to that word, “iconic.” We haven’t seen any memorable or remarkable phones from Nokia for the U.S. market, even though it has for years had an R&D center in San Diego and has said it was working with U.S. operators. Still, nothing.
Based on the speeches coming out of London today at Nokia World, the Finnish OEM is ready for its big comeback. Worldwide, Nokia still remains a strong brand, but its problem is the U.S. market, where times have changed considerably since Apple debuted the iPhone. (And at last check, that was quite a few years ago.)
For a long time, Nokia was notorious for launching its handsets in overseas markets, then bringing them to the United States. Now the United States is where the big handset splashes are happening – with iPhone and Android – and still no great U.S.-first from Nokia comes to mind. Nokia executives at one point in recent years promised that would change, but I haven’t seen it.
Nokia knows the score. In a conference call with North American journalists today, Colin Giles, senior vice president and global head of sales for Nokia, acknowledged more than once that Nokia is not happy with its current situation in the United States, and it is looking at ways to bring products to market, improve operator collaboration and make sure it meets U.S. operator specs. “We’re in listening mode right now,” he said.
Why it is taking so long, one can only speculate.
Are some U.S. operators hopeful that Nokia would build for the Android platform? If so, it’s moot, because that’s something that just plain won’t happen if Nokia, a longtime Symbian shop, has its way. A spokeswoman reiterated today that Android is not in Nokia’s plans.
It’s easy to understand why. For one, Samsung already has been there, done that with Galaxy S (quite successfully, from most appearances.) Another, and probably a much more important reason for Nokia, is Android is synonymous with Google. The two compete on many fronts, not the least of which is in the area of LBS. Nokia owns Navteq, which is far more mature in its maps, and Google is pursuing its own map strategy, including pedestrian, which has been a strong suit for Nokia in terms of worldwide markets where pedestrians rule.
Giles indicated that Nokia has received some positive feedback from U.S. operators on the Symbian ^3 platform. But once again, we’re back to Nokia needing to create something above and beyond what iOS and Android offer, and it’s not yet clear that Symbian ^3 is going to do that.
When all the fanfare around the N8’s launch date came out last week, it initially seemed like a great opportunity for Nokia to really shine in the U.S. market. But along with the three new devices unveiled in London today, the N8 doesn’t have a U.S. carrier partner. Consumers can order it online, and apparently have done so on a pre-order basis, but that’s not the same as having a carrier deal and carrier support.
The challenges Nokia has in its dealing with U.S. carriers must be extremely complex, or it would have solved them by now. Over the years, I’ve wondered how Nokia would work it out with U.S. carriers, and that was long before Google came into the mobile picture in any significant way. Questions like: How do you balance the interests of the carrier and Nokia’s brand? Doesn’t one of them have to dominate in the end? Apparently, those types of questions are not that easy to remedy.
Whether Nokia “saves” its big U.S. launch for LTE has to be considered. It’s the same question that keeps popping up with the rumored iPhone launch with Verizon Wireless – would Apple commit all the resources to a CDMA model when LTE is on the horizon?
It’s also not as if Nokia isn’t collaborating with U.S. companies. It’s got partnerships with Intel, Microsoft and Yahoo! But are those enough? So far, no.
To be sure, Nokia has a lot of work to do, and the executive shuffle there is in full swing. Maybe the arrival of its new CEO, Stephen Elop, from Microsoft’s Business Division, will give it some better insight into the U.S. market. While I’m not sure Microsoft is the best entity to turn to for mobile advice, maybe it can’t hurt. Key word: maybe.