Nokia hopes to get back into the game with Microsoft Windows smartphones

October 26, 2011

It wasn’t that long ago when everyone I knew had a Nokia phone.

You couldn’t walk down the street and not see dozens of the Finnish company’s devices in the hands of users. Children, businesspeople, moms and dads. Everyone had a Nokia phone, and everyone was playing a game that the company shipped with most of its handsets called “Snake.”

The premise of Snake was to maneuver a black line (your snake) around the display of the phone, picking up little rewards that would make your snake grow longer. Eventually, the snake would become so long that it would get challenging to keep the snake from running into its own lagging tail.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the Nokia story seems to run parallel with that game.

The company has watched its market share in the United States, Europe and Asia decline sharply in the past decade or so. In the past few years in particular, the iPhone and the Android lineup of smartphones have spirited away once-loyal Nokia customers.

Nokia Inc. has been playing its own, big game of snake — the bigger the company became, the less capable it got at maneuvering around.

While Apple and Google were reshaping the mobile industry, Nokia had stood still. Weighed down by its own stubbornness and blinded by insulation, it clung to a dated operating system called Symbian (the vast majority of its devices still use this OS). The company believed so strongly in the product and its position in the market that it continued to ship this software even in the face of consistently bad reviews and sales.

When Nokia finally woke up to its problems, it hatched a scheme to build a new operating system, something completely fresh called MeeGo — only the company was years behind the competition. It killed the project after releasing a single device.

But about a year ago, things began to change for Nokia. Long-time chief executive Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo was ousted from the company and replaced with former Microsoft Business Division head Stephen Elop.

Not long after he took the reins, Elop announced a sea change for Nokia, delivered in a message now referred to as the “burning platform” memo. In that letter, Elop described a man who was trapped on a burning oil rig platform in the middle of the ocean. He had to decide whether to be burned alive standing still or take a chance by plunging into the freezing waters below.

It was not a subtle message.

For Nokia, that plunge was to shake off its Symbian roots and put aside its pet projects to partner with Microsoft on its recently reintroduced Windows Phone platform.

Here was another company faced with the same painful decision: keep moving in the same direction, or change course. The pair were well matched.

This week, we saw the first fruits of the companies’ labors at the annual Nokia World event held in London — a pair of Windows Phone handsets. One is a higher end model made of sleek polycarbonate plastic called the Lumia 800. The other is a lower priced version called the Lumia 710.

The phones are certainly distinct in some ways, but they’re surprisingly indistinct in many others. Part of Microsoft’s mission with Windows Phone devices is to ensure that each handset delivers a consistent experience for users. That means that, like other Windows Phone handsets on the market, Nokia’s devices must adhere to a strict set of guidelines on how much memory they have, what kind of processor they use and what resolution screen can be used.

Nokia is known for its beautiful industrial design, and the latest models hold true to that legacy. On the software side, however, the two new phones aren’t different from other Windows Phone devices on the market — and that may be off-putting to buyers looking for something special.

There are other challenges, too. Nokia has stated that returning to prominence in North America is a major goal for the company. Both new phones, however, won’t launch in the United States or Canada until 2012 — even though the 800 will be available in Europe in November.

Microsoft has been slow in bringing its other devices to CDMA networks in the States, and it looks like Nokia’s phones will face a similar battle. And then there’s the competition, which is more fierce than ever; iPhone and Android numbers continue to dominate sales as Microsoft struggles to gain a foothold in the market.

But the test starts now. As Nokia President Chris Weber told reporters this August: “The reality is if we are not successful with Windows Phone, it doesn’t matter what we do.”

The trick this time will be to grow again, but be agile enough to stay one step ahead of everyone else. Nokia got everyone addicted to that “Snake” game on its phones — now it’s time to see if the company has learned how to play it any better.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and former editor in chief of Engadget.

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