Do We Believe In the Nokia Fightback?

Part way through an executive reshuffle, and with its product ranges unsettled, Nokia made a good fist of the Nokia World opening yesterday, says Peter Judge

Nokia people must have dreaded the opening of Nokia World this year. A steadily negative press has been giving the impression of a company that has lost its way, delays to the latest flagship phone meant it wasn’t quite in the shops yet, and two senior executives announced their departure before the big event opened in London.

And yet, the company came through with pretty convincing keynotes, solid products and at least a few good reasons to believe that it has plenty of fight left in it – and a good chance of meeting Android and Apple head on.

If Nokia is back, where did it go?

It was slightly disconcerting for vice president Niklas Savander to declare “Nokia is back” after a keynote designed to convince us that the company has never been away. Savander had rightly pointed out that its smartphone sales are still greater than those of Apple and Android devices combined, and sales of 260,000 smartphones every day do not consitute failure by any count.

However, the odd item in the speech betokened a company that is on the back foot. Why the need to mention a slip of the tongue at an Apple press conference, where iOS chief Scott Forstall inadvertently said Apple was “connecting people”. Sure, it’s a Nokia trademark, but it’s also a pretty common phrase.

If Nokia’s not worried about Apple, why the close attention? You never hear Stever Ballmer crowing when Steve jobs opens a “window”.

And the executive musical chairs was a little embarrassing. Microsoft’s Stephen Elop is no doubt delighted to be in charge of Nokia. Vice president Niklas Savander read out an email from him that said so. But he’s not delighted enough to get to the show, and Nokia – a company which connects people – couldn’t find a way to present him by video link-up.

Savander talked tough for a bit, but then the product pitches were left to a smartphone chief who is not long for the company. Anssi Vanjoki did a pretty good job talking up the new products, but why did he announce his resignation earlier this week? Why not keep it quiet for a fortnight or so?

None of this seemed to bother the Nokia fans. They even joined in a round of applause for the former CEO, led without any apparent embarassment by the man who – presumably – kicked him out of the company.

It’s the phones, stupid

Nokia fans in London sat quietly through this – and more – because that stuff does not bother them. They know this is really about the phones, and this time round, Nokia actually does have a set of phones which could succeed.

The company seemed to have bent over backwards to create a unified experience at this show. All the new phones run Symbian^3, even though the company is supposed to be doing great things with Meego Linux in future. And all of them bore a very strong resemblance to each other.

This was strange, since Vanjoki emphasised from the stage that Nokia wants to offer diversity. One device won’t meet everyone’s needs, he said. But the new phones we were shown all looked very similar, and only really varied in being slightly bigger, slightly smaller, having slightly more megapixels or (in the case of the E7) a sliding keyboard.

Nokia does offer variety – and in particular, compared with Google and Apple – it has a massive strength in feature phones as well as the ability to drive its smartphones down to lower-cost devices. But this time round, the company seems to have learned that a single public image is working well for Apple – and to a lesser extent Google/Android.

There are definitely weak points. I travelled to the show with a committed Nokia developer who had spent a long time using the N8. Even for someone committed to Nokia, he had a dismal view of the open source OS. “It’s the same old Symbian user interface,” he said. “We need a new version, and till then it’s a struggle for survival.”

That kind of reaction is never far below the surface, and it could come to the fore.

But Nokia used a certain skill in playing the hand it has, and could well emerge in a stronger position, if things go its way.