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A big week for Nokia

Wednesday will see the opening of Nokia World in London. It will be the first time in around three years that the company will have something genuinely exciting to show.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Wednesday will see the opening of Nokia World in London. It will be the first time in around three years that the company will have something genuinely exciting to show.

In recent years, going to major Nokia and/or Symbian events has been a depressing affair. As we all know, the arrival of the iPhone left Nokia looking tired and out of touch. To some extent this was an accurate assessment, although much of it was down to a tech press entirely diverted by Apple's user-friendly device and wilfully oblivious to the sheer size of Nokia's entrenched user base.

Nokia was out of touch, but more with itself than with its competitors. Chief executive Olli-Pekka 'OPK' Kallasvuo had a grand vision of the company, which had evolved many times through trades including wood pulp and rubber boots, becoming all about services and applications. This is why Nokia bought Trolltech, for instance — in Qt, it wanted a bridge not only between its Symbian and Maemo (subsequently MeeGo) operating systems, but also from the handset to the desktop.

Nokia's open-sourcing of the Qt governance process last week was necessary and perhaps symbolic. That dream is over. Nokia now has to play to its strengths. A few key, established services such as mapping and navigation will continue to get some love from the top, but Nokia is now, under Stephen Elop, once again a proud hardware specialist.

When Nokia and Microsoft announced their grand coalition in February, the idea of a Windows Phone made by the Finnish firm tantalised me somewhat.

As I pointed out at the time, other Windows Phone manufacturers such as HTC were not putting an awful lot of effort into differentiating their Microsoft-based handsets from their much more lucrative Android phones, in terms of design at least. Turn the screen off, hide the icons on the buttons and you'd have trouble telling the two types apart.

Funnily enough, Nokia is about to launch its Windows Phone self with at least partly the same strategy. The '800' or 'Sea Ray' handset due to be unveiled tomorrow is a near-clone of the MeeGo-equipped N9. However, the likes of HTC make their Windows Phones look like more-established Android handsets — Nokia has done its damnedest to keep the 'contractual obligation' N9 out of consumers' hands, making the Nokia 800 look fresh to all but a handful of users.

It seemed like a perverse decision at the time, to design and release what could be a serious contender, only to try and bury it before it even hit the shelves. But it may have paid off.

Let us — with a wince — try to ignore how impressive the open-source MeeGo OS and Nokia's proprietary Harmattan user interface appear to be, and concentrate on the hardware itself. I haven't had a chance to get hands-on with an N9, but I have recently had a play with a near-final Sea Ray phone, and I can confirm that it looks and feels gorgeous, and very very Nokia.

It's thin, curvy, matte and machine-tooled, and it has one of the best screens I've seen on a smartphone. It feels solid and right, despite its slender proportions. Repurposing the N9 design was in this case a good choice, as there is nothing else on the market like it.

As for the software, well, it's Windows Phone. As HTC has pointed out, Microsoft does not tolerate meaningful customisation of its platform and UI and Nokia will not, for now at least, get special treatment here. That said, Windows Phone is a fine-looking beast and increasingly credible in the app department.

It's worth reminding ourselves at this point what Nokia and Microsoft offer each other. Nokia, as we have established, does hardware. It has promised to focus its smartphone efforts on Windows Phone, giving Microsoft more attention than other manufacturers can or are willing to offer. The breadth of Nokia's partner ecosystem can also not be overstated — in terms of marketing Windows Phone to app-makers and resellers, Microsoft has scored as big a win as possible here.

Microsoft also gets to augment the Windows Phone platform with Nokia's mapping and navigation services — for all Windows Phones, not just the Nokia ones. Nokia/Ovi Maps is at least as good as Google Maps, particularly as it allows full offline usage. If you ever travel internationally with your smartphone and do not have limitless funds for roaming mobile broadband usage, this is a massive draw.

Nokia, meanwhile, gets to take a breather from trying and failing to battle Apple and Google (and Microsoft) in the platform game. The 'Meltemi' lightweight mobile Linux development effort is still quietly going on somewhere behind the scenes — expect some of the Harmattan UI elements to make their way here, by the way — but Nokia is right now showing an impressive amount of focus, especially by Nokia's standards.

So, tomorrow we will see the first results of this partnership. We will see the 800, which is a very credible device, and we will also probably see two other phones: a large-screened handset designed with the US market in mind, and a cheaper, more plasticky version of the 800, aimed at the mass market.

All three of these devices have certainly been under development. It is not a dead cert that all three will appear this week in London, but it is very likely. If so, Nokia will be showing all its cards at once. Short of putting out a tablet (which will happen at some point, I imagine), there's not really any other bit of the market to target.

What happens then is anyone's guess. The devices themselves will almost certainly get glowing reviews. If Nokia manages to get its pricing right — and the three-pronged approach suggests it might — then an awful lot of people will carry on buying Nokia, as they did before. Upgrade cycles should not be overestimated and brand loyalty should not be underestimated, particularly outside of the Western European markets.

Microsoft is certain to benefit. As for Nokia, the company's weak spot is covered… for now. If it can't make it by concentrating on hardware (and I suspect it can) then it will probably have to put its phone business up for sale and move on to something else again.

As I said in the title, this will be a big week for Nokia.

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