A year ago Nokia was talking about hurling itself off a burning platform into a cold and dark ocean. The world wondered if the largest cellphone maker on Earth was committing suicide by phasing out Symbian smartphones and ditching the MeeGo operating system. Nokia, the company that brought many consumers their first cellphones, was crumbling in front of our very eyes.
It was like watching an old friend kill himself through years of alcoholism. Eventually, the bad decisions just start to pile up. But, like many alcoholics, somebody was there to throw a lifeline into that freezing, murky sea. Nokia grabbed onto Microsoft's life preserver and hung on for all it was worth. A year later? Nokia has the one thing that all technology companies crave: the buzz of the masses. People are saying positive things about Nokia again. That is an amazing thing.
From Burning Platform to Windows Phone
When we rewrite the history of the first decade of the smartphone revolution, 2011 will likely be known as Nokia's "Lost Year." It was a strong player before 2011 and likely a strong player after. The year started with new CEO Stephen Elop, fresh out of Microsoft, taking the reigns and completely blowing up five years of development strategy. Employees that had worked on Symbian and MeeGo were irate. Elop then announced that Nokia would transition to Windows Phone for its newest smartphones. The skeptics came out in force and shouted "collusion, collusion!" Elop was ostensibly a Microsoft plant embedded in Nokia to deliver the Finnish giant into the hands of Redmond.
That may still end up being the case if Microsoft wants to buyout Nokia's handset division. There have been rumor of that recently but it is still probably too early to tell if Microsoft will make that plunge.
Image: Nokia Lumia 800
In 2011 we waited and waited for some news of how and when Nokia would implement Windows Phone. The longer the wait went on, the more technology pundits said, "Nokia is just screwed." The announcement came at Nokia World in London in October with two devices, the Lumia 710 and 800, which were released to the European market almost immediately. Yet, Nokia missed the boat on the holiday shopping season, a move that many (myself included) said was a big mistake. At the time, Nokia's head of North America, Chris Weber, told me that Nokia was going to have several differentiated devices coming to the U.S. across carriers in a way that would make the company highly competitive in the market.
Disclosure: Nokia paid ReadWriteWeb's travel and lodging to Nokia World in London.
North America, the Lumia 900 And the Buzz Engine
Nokia World is where the true buzz started. The company made a special effort to bring in U.S. journalists (many bloggers were shipped across the pond at Nokia's expense) and promised that these bright and shiny Lumia's would eventually make it stateside. There is a lot to like about the Lumia 800. In terms of hardware, it is one of the most solid smartphones that I have ever laid hands on. Windows Phone is not a complete disaster either. The user interface takes some getting used to and the app ecosystem is a work in progress but there is distinct potential for Microsoft's smartphone operating system.
The first Lumia device to reach the U.S. was the 710, rolled out to T-Mobile. The Lumia is the poor little sister to the 800. The hardware and form factor are not as evolved as the 800 and it is designed to be a middle class device. This is what Nokia is giving us? So much for that life preserver.
Right image: Nokia Lumia 710
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Monday, Nokia finally released its secret weapon: the Lumia 900 coming to AT&T later this year. This is a smartphone worth of consideration. It has a 4.3 inch display and superior camera optics and will run "4G" LTE.
More than anything the Lumia 900 is where Nokia's North American buzz will start. Former ReadWriteWeb and current TechCrunch reporter Sarah Perez summed it up nicely with a single tweet:
Nokia Lumia 900. Want. Want. Want.— Sarah Perez (@sarahintampa) January 10, 2012
Reporter Farhad Manjoo who writes for Slate, Fast Company and the New York Times, said it succinctly in comparing the Lumia 900 to the iPhone:
The Lumia 900 is the first phone since the iPhone that I want without even touching it. bit.ly/zMeyqd— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) January 9, 2012
Even perpetual Apple proponent MG Siegler thinks the Lumia 900 has potential.
Now Comes The Trick
Buzz is good. Especially buzz from top tech pundits that have not been friendly to your company in the last year. Research In Motion could desperately use some positive buzz at this point. A year ago it looked liked both RIM and Nokia were on the way to the Land That Technology Forgot. Nokia pulled itself out of that death spiral and today looks to turn the corner. RIM? Well, the situation there is far worse than it ever was at Nokia.
But buzz does not sell smartphones. It might sell a few to early adopters and enthusiasts but the product itself has to be able to carry consumer mind share. And that's the rub: can Nokia turn the buzz surrounding the Lumia 900 into actual sales in North America? For a populace that is enamored with the iPhone and various Android devices, that is no sure thing.
The fate of Nokia's handset division rests on how well the Lumia 900 sells at AT&T. So does the Microsoft's entry into the mobile operating system wars. At Nokia World, Elop said that the Lumia 800 was, "the first real Windows Phone." The Lumia 800 was just a precursor to more important markets. The first real Windows Phone that U.S. consumers will crave has to be Lumia 900. Billions of dollars and thousands of jobs are at stake.