Nokia rules the mobile phone world so why do we diss them in the US?

Nokia has reigned as the leader of the mobile phone market for years, but has never seemed to gain much respect from the media and smartphone enthusiasts in the US. Are they really much different than other smartphone makers and can we come to appreciate them too?
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer on

In a month I will be heading to London to cover my first Nokia World event and as I plan my trip and think more about Nokia in the smartphone world I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you all and get some feedback on the company. I grow weary of the constant hammering that Nokia gets here in the US by the media, some of which is admittedly quite understandable and valid, and have been thinking a lot about why there is such disgust and lack of love of Nokia here in the United States. Are we giving Nokia a fair look and looking at Apple, RIM, and Google through a different set of glasses or do they deserve such treatment in the US?

Let me first start by saying I am a long time fan of Nokia smartphones. I started using them in 2002 with the Nokia 3650 on T-Mobile and I am the writer of the Nokia Experts site, part of the Smartphone Experts family of sites. I write that site because of my interest and passion in their products and am not paid by Nokia or anyone else to write the site. I have gotten a couple of devices from the SPE staff to evaluate for the site over the year and a half I have been writing it. I wanted to let you know this about me since I do have strong feelings for Nokia products (positive and negative) and am writing this as an opinion piece, which is much of what this blog is about.

Nokia is not perfect, but neither is anyone else

Nokia has had some recent blunders in the smartphone market with issues like the anemic internal hardware of the Nokia N97 flagship product and rather convoluted Ovi services, but they are not the only ones who have messed up with things either and we need to look fairly at everyone. Apple has issues with the iPhone 4 and took a long time to add some basic smartphone functionality (cut/paste, multi-tasking, video recording, etc.) to their iPhone line, RIM had a weak web browsing experience and ugly interface for years, Google (includes vendors with Android devices) has several versions of its Android OS out with a rather disjointed user experience and common force stop/memory low errors with software, Palm has a wonderful OS with troublesome hardware, and Microsoft just gave up on the smartphone market for a year to work on Windows Phone 7. Each of the major smartphone operating systems and manufacturers has issues with many fixed with firmware updates after the devices are released. We have grown into a consumer market that almost expects devices to get better after release rather than being their best when we purchase them. It seems to me that we often overlook the others and slam Nokia unfairly. Do you agree or disagree?

Nokia S60 UI not so different

One issue that I see a lot of people focusing on when talking about Nokia's S60 lineup is the difficult and complex user interface. I think this is more of an issue for people in the US since those in other countries have grown up using the S60 interface and actually find it to be familiar and friendly and they do not want it changed significantly. I admit that it does take some time to get familiar with the S60 interface, but after you do then you find it to be extremely customizable and powerful. As Steve Litchfield pointed out in a recent All About Symbian article that mirrored many of the thoughts I have had swirling in my head, the Symbian user interface is not much different than what we see on most other smartphone platforms yet people treat it like it is ancient and outdated. There are definitely elements in consistency that need fixing, but overall S60 functions much like every other smartphone OS.

There is also the Maemo 5 UI in the Nokia N900 that is pretty revolutionary and offers a multi-tasking interface that may be the best on the market with one of the most powerful mobile browsers we have ever seen.

Nokia in the US

As I mentioned above, my first Nokia device was the Nokia 3650, a Series 60 (now named S60) smartphone, and I received this as a free phone from T-Mobile. I primarily used it as a fantastic Bluetooth wireless modem for my PDAs (funny that some devices still can't do this), but it also ran a large number of applications and included functionality found in PDAs. Nokia had these Series 60 smartphones available all over the US market and throughout the world, but I believe that the majority of people did not even understand the power of the device they owned. I remember growing up and people getting Nokia phones, not necessarily Series 60 smartphones, for free from their carriers. Many people were quite happy with the high quality, durability, and RF reception of their Nokia phones in the past and I honestly think for many people over the age of 30 Nokia is still thought of in the US as the maker of free simple mobile phones rather than as a smartphone maker.

We still see some low end Nokia phones at T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon today and Nokia does have a small US market share. We have seen some recent S60 smartphones released by AT&T (Nokia E71x) and T-Mobile (Nokia E73 Mode and Nokia Nuron), but nothing like what we see in Europe and other countries. AT&T hobbled the experience of the ESeries with the E71x having an overabundance of crapware and carrier lock down (nothing new for AT&T outside of the iPhone) so it wasn't as good of an experience as it could have been. T-Mobile USA doesn't work like this and both the Nuron and E73 Mode are good choices for smartphones. I personally have been using the E73 Mode as my main T-Mobile device for over a month and find it to be a fantastic and very capable smartphone. The great thing about the Nuron is that T-Mobile has some very low data plan rates for the device while it gives you the full free Ovi Maps navigation capability and S60 5th Edition operating system.

The mindshare of Nokia in the US still appears to be one of the cheap low end phones and Nokia is going to have to work hard to help people understand that powerful smartphones are available for an excellent price and offer some amazing services like Ovi Maps. They are also going to have to continue working with carriers because most folks in the US will not buy unlocked smartphones and do not understand that the initial price of a mobile phone is nothing compared to the carrier monthly minimum fees that subsidized phones require them to pay.

Pricing: Let's compare apples to apples please

If you look at the carrier subsidized model that reigns here in the US, then the few carrier subsidized phones from Nokia are dirt cheap compared to other smartphones. The AT&T E71x launched at $99, the Nokia E73 Mode is available at $49.99, and the Nokia Nuron is available for free. These are fantastic deals for capable smartphones and Nokia should be doing well with them, but I still believe people don't think of Nokia as a smartphone maker in the US.

The higher end Nokia devices are sold only as SIM-unlocked devices from the Nokia USA site and through other online retailers like Amazon and Newegg. The great thing is that these devices are sold both as SIM-unlocked devices and as no-contract required devices while the smartphone sold through carriers are no-contract phones only that are still locked to the specific carrier. The upcoming Nokia N8 is available for pre-order now through the Nokia USA site for $549 and by comparison the 16GB iPhone 4 is $599, the 32GB iPhone 4 is $699, and the T-Mobile Samsung Vibrant is $499.99. Again, keep in mind that these carrier phones are still locked to the carrier and AT&T and/or Apple will not SIM unlock the iPhone. I understand that most people don't care about non-contract pricing since they plan to stay with a carrier for a long time, but it may be important to those of use who travel overseas or who buy new smartphones quicker than the 2-year contract length.

Market share

According to Gartner data going back to 2007, Nokia led with just over 50% of the smartphone market share, but a couple serious competitors entered the field (Apple and Google) and others started focusing on consumers (RIM) so that their share has slipped to the current level of 34.2%. The next place company, Samsung, is now up to 20.1% with LG in third at 9%. Symbian's lead has fallen from over 65% to 41% with RIM in second at 18.2% and Android in third at 17.2%. Nokia and Symbian still have significant leads, but they are falling fast in the high end smartphone market and Nokia cannot rest while everyone else rises in a market where smartphone purchases are up 50% from 2009.

Nokia previously stated that 2010 would be a transition year as they moved from their S60 platform to the Symbian platform that includes Symbian^3 devices launching first with the N8 in September. They also switched their high end strategy a bit and dropped Maemo to work with Intel on the MeeGo platform with devices likely not appearing until early 2011. I don't think they are sitting on their laurels and they must understand and see what is happening in the smartphone market. There are some very intelligent people at Nokia and I think we can count on them rolling out compelling products in the future and fighting hard to maintain and even increase their worldwide market share.

Nokia does extremely well in the lower end mobile phone market with their S40 products flourishing in developing countries. There is very little profit made on each device here, but Nokia is helping to connect the world and improves the lives of millions with these products as you can see with projects such as their Ovi Life Tools.

Nokia is also very conscious of the environment and works hard to promote good stewardship of our planet.

Future of Nokia

I already ordered my Nokia N8 smartphone that should be available sometime in September. It is already being downplayed by US media as a device with an old user interface that won't succeed. However, it is the world's first penta-band 3G device (means it will work with 3G data on AT&T, T-Mobile, and throughout most of the world), it has a 12 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics and Xenon flash with the largest sensors ever seen in a camera phone, it is the first Symbian^3 device, and the SIM-unlocked retail price is lower than almost any other carrier locked, no contract price in the US for a smartphone. My only current concern with the N8 is the processor speed and internal memory, but with OS optimizations there may not be any actual issues here and the N8 should do well if they are not a problem. Nokia has stated that the N8 is a mid to upper level device, but it is not their new flagship high end device and that type of device should be coming in 2011 with the MeeGo operating system. I hope we see more about MeeGo at Nokia World next month too.

Nokia will continue to sell millions of their low end devices around the world and if they play their cards right they should maintain and maybe grow their smartphone market share as Symbian and MeeGo devices start hitting the street in 2011. Their influence and impact in the US still remains questionable as they must work with the carriers to succeed here in our rather dated infrastructure. I am trying to educate people through my Nokia Experts site and think there is a lot of room for improvement here in the US.

My hope is that the media and other smartphone enthusiasts approach and look at Nokia with a more open mind and just because you may not be familiar with an operating system that doesn't mean it sucks. Nokia is very well liked by millions of people (the Symbian Foundation reported that they and a majority of them are from Nokia while Nokia also reports 1.7 million Ovi Store downloads per day) and it sure would be nice to see people in the US appreciate their products too.

UPDATE: Thank you all for the comments made so far, much more encouraging than I thought I would see at this point. One of the main points being made that I should have focused on a bit more is that Nokia smartphones are still indeed first and foremost great phones. I know many of us that read these blogs are all about the data and computing power in our smartphones, but there are millions of people who just want a good phone and Nokia excels in this department.

I also meant to point out that people do not get much hands-on experience with Nokia's smartphones since so few are sold via carriers and when people actually get the chance to use them they are often surprised at how good they are. As you can see in the Third Annual Smartphone Round Robin that I participated in last year, every editor of the Smartphone Experts family of sites was caught off guard by the functionality and capability of the Nokia N900 and N97 mini with one comment made that I shouldn't be allowed to bring a mini computer to a smartphone battle.

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