Rebuilding a Nokia North America Presence

The surprising selection of Canadian and former Microsoftie Stephen Elop for new Nokia CEO has triggered mass speculation that the company has finally decided to walk the walk on this continent.  The invitation to numerous bloggers from North America to attend Nokia World 2010 in London pretty much seals the deal.

What isn’t clear however lies in the dust of details. 

Early Withdrawal

In certain respects Nokia has been beating a steady retreat from the United States for some time, starting with the shuttering of its single US factory in North Texas (not long after repurposing it) and continuing on to the rapid shrinkage of its Irving (Dallas area) campus.  The latter was formerly the US headquarters, and rumor has it that the status was switched to White Plains New York largely due to the unwillingness of American Airlines to indulge outgoing Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo with a direct HEL-to-DFW flight.  No word yet on if that’s also a hangup for Mr. Elop.

The ongoing scaledown at Irving has spawned rumors of its own.  With every exiting employee, word of impending campus closure is reignited.  Interestingly, new jobs pop up now and then for the site but then I hear afterwards that they will likely be transferred to other locations.

If telecommunications king Dallas can’t keep Nokia’s interest, what might that mean for other areas where the cost of living is much higher?  Will Elop move quickly to cut real estate overhead before the end of the year?  It wouldn’t be surprising to see more facility elimination and consolidation here in the US, and soon.  Of course that could easily translate to personnel reductions, too.

Regardless, if Nokia intends to recover in the US, it will need a physical presence.

Sacred Ground

Some locations will no doubt be spared.  The current hot spot for Nokia is in Mountain View, California and the general Silicon Valley area, where headcount is actually growing and MeeGo Community Manager Quim Gil has been spearheading marketing efforts to improve that new operating system’s visibility and viability.  Corporate moves intersect with grassroots enterprise and result in initiatives like the local MeeGo network groups, which have been sprouting like weeds (disclaimer: I coordinate the one for the Dallas – Fort Worth area).  I hope to interview Quim and/or others involved in this soon and will share the results.

I don’t see any changes for the current headquarters in White Plains, New York.  Maybe not Miami, Florida either.  But Nokia has operations in cities all over the United States that may or may not make sense to the incoming CEO.

Hardware Rules

Nokia will depend on success in services and software to reclaim prominence in North America, but its brand is still in its cell phones.  The devices shown at Nokia World 2010 sure look to have the right stuff for American end users, so the only real struggle will be in attaining service provider acceptance.  Rumors of this have failed to materialize for the past two years, and pundits are growing weary of such fruitless talk.  Nokia could use a high-profile carrier partnership, and fast.

But the cell phone giant has always moved slowly and deliberately, and renewing its US presence has been no exception.  It’s even possible that Nokia may be biding its time, building for a big 4G launch here in the near future.  It’s flirted briefly with WiMAX and has been long preparing for LTE as well, with tantalizing results.  The partnership with Siemens (as Nokia Siemens Networks) can’t hurt.  When 4G goes big in the States, Nokia may well turn out to be the best situated for taking advantage.

Spreading the Gospel

Apple’s iPhone has found its ~15% niche.  Nokia’s true competition will be anything running Android.

3rd-party projections currently predict a Symbian/Android split of about 30% market share apiece by 2014.  MeeGo is presumably in the small percentage “Other” bucket since it isn’t explicitly mentioned.

MeeGo certainly has the potential, technology-wise, to surpass any mobile operating system out there.  Its competition for device presence against Nokia’s old standby Symbian must be awkward for Nokia.  The latest message is that MeeGo will dominate the upper end, starting with Nokia’s still-niche mobile computer segment.

The tool that will make MeeGo truly viable is the development platform Qt, absorbed by Nokia in 2008 with its acquisition of Trolltech.  But Qt is cross-platform, meaning applications can theoretically run as well on Symbian as they would on MeeGo.  So where is the differentiator?  What advantages does MeeGo present over Symbian?  The easy answer is that MeeGo is much fresher, and other than the miniscule Maemo ecosystem there’s really nothing to disrupt with radical architecture advents.  Bringing Symbian up to modern usage (especially around touchscreen use) has meant problematic under-the-hood overhaul.

Operating system rivalries aside, Qt is the technological trojan horse that will help reinvigorate Nokia as a solutions provider.  Developer assemblies for Qt will be steadily increasing in number and coverage.  That includes an upcoming event in San Francisco, California.  I am told the US can expect more roadshows for Qt by 2011.  Hopefully the major market centers will all be hit.

Nokia’s other weapon in this software+service arsenal is Ovi, but despite a nice recent revamp to the portal screen, Ovi has yet to mature into its promise and indeed, with the loss of Ovi Files is seeing its viability erode.  I’m still mystified as to why Nokia appears to hamstring Ovi development, given the company’s declaration at launch that this service was its future.

Conclusion

Nokia sends mixed signals concerning its intentions in North America.  Its preferred sales and distribution models are crimped by the strong carrier models here, requiring the company to become exceedingly creative in order to overcome that hurdle.  So far they have not managed.  Taking the message to developers and proving a strong commitment to their success will be key to gaining them as points of pressure upon carriers.

Beating the telcos at their restrictive game is possible; it’s just going to require more effort than Nokia has put forth so far.  Failing that, they’ll have to learn how to play nice in a business model that’s philosophically inverse to their own.  The US pundits aren’t betting on either.  Unless it has a top-secret foolproof plan to own the 4G experience, Nokia doesn’t have a lot of time to prove them wrong.

(image from intomobile.com)

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4 responses to “Rebuilding a Nokia North America Presence

  1. Great article.
    I wonder why Nokia does not give an ultimatum to carriers, like the iphone which AT&T does not touch. I would love for Nokia to release a pentaband N9 with all carriers along with a subsidy. The N9 can quite easily get 15% of the market if that was done…

    • Apple had iTunes as it’s cash cow to dangle in front of carriers. It made too much sense for Apple not to play hardball. US carriers always play hardball, and usually win. There’s much about the FCC in the reason for this.

      Texrat, nice piece. Wish I knew you were writing it as I had a similar Symbain piece that compliments this nicely on my site. Nevertheless, nice work as always and yes, I wish too that the louder media outlets would get their perspectives straightened out.

  2. This isn’t really about the main points in your article but it was brought up…
    Is predicting market share out to 2014 reliable in any way? Was anybody able to predict the growth of Android until very recently, or the iPhone before that? Most people who have a smartphone will buy a new one before 2014, many of them switching OS in the process (away from Symbian most likely). I think that the smartphone market is prone to rapid shifts.
    It’s been announced that the WeTab (running MeeGo) can run android apps. If MeeGo phones can pull the same trick (instantly solving the “lack of apps” problem) that might cause a couple of large manufacturers to switch and change the outlook again.

    • You’re right: 5 years ago nobody would have dared predict those numbers for Android. It was a big wild card. But I think 29% in a few years is a safe bet NOW based on its fast adoptance.

      Then again, MeeGo is the current wild card… ;)

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