Nokia, Apple and a whole heap of hyperbole

Nokia's new head of Mobile Solutions (the division of the Finnish company dedicated to smartphones and mobile computers) Anssi Vanjoki has come out fighting this week, promising "killer smartphones", "game-changing products" and the sort of "battle" that fanboys have been crying out for over the past couple of years. You could well argue that his counterpart at Nokia's Mobile Phones division has an easier job of it, taking on the more mundane grist of what's still the biggest cellphone company worldwide (and getting handset-hungry developing markets to cater to). Vanjoki gets a tired portfolio of devices with only the N8 a glimmer on the horizon (and that, a crueller person might add, runs an already tired OS) and the challenge of rivalling the best in Android, iOS and webOS in what has become perhaps the fastest changing segment in consumer electronics. That's a pretty hefty to-do list, so what should be his plan of attack, where does the N8 fit into it, and – in a week of iPhone 4 contention – what lessons could Apple be learning from the Finns' fall from grace?

Two months ago, I asked whether Nokia might be the most misunderstood cellphone company around. At the time I blamed untimely handling of their smartphone roadmap and too much willingness to rest on the laurels of their developing markets business, and wondered whether apathy or lack of understanding from the US-centric technology press and the consumers they talk to had left their brand message undermined. Since then we've seen broad previews of the N8 – looking more stable than the early prototype leaked a few months back, but still patchy in its performance – and some underwhelming official video presentations highlighting the smartphone's "key strengths".

Unfortunately, we've also heard that the N8 will be the last of the Nseries Symbian^3 devices. While that's good news for those who aren't impressed with the refreshed OS, it does open the door for the N8 being left in limbo, caught between a platform Nokia are pushing down to their Eseries business-centric and lower devices, and their MeeGo future. Symbian^4, Vanjoki teases us with a coy wink, will make an appearance on Nseries devices in time, but where does that leave N8 owners? Will the N8 see a S^4 upgrade option? We generally suggest that people should buy a phone that does what they want it to do now, rather than on the promise of some firmware upgrade who-knows-when down the line; Nokia has given us no indication that the N8 will ever see Symbian^4, the net result being that many may just sit the handset out and wait for the new OS (or a device running MeeGo) to make its debut.

"The current phase of MeeGo development is looking awesome" Vanjoki tells us, though it's unclear whether he's referring solely to the OS – from which we've seen the latest screenshots, but nothing overwhelming – or to Nokia's unseen hardware plans. It's a difficult balance to make, teasing upcoming devices to maintain consumer (and carrier) interest without undermining your immediate or imminent product range nor setting yourself launch schedules you later cannot meet. Nokia are no doubt still smarting from the N97 debacle, which saw a flagship device released well after the unveil buzz had worn off, running software that tried the loyalty of even its staunchest advocates.

The biggest irony is, perhaps, that Nokia seems to inspire levels of consumer devotion second only to that surrounding Apple. While – dare I say it – the mainstream technology press has been lukewarm about their recent offerings, the Nokia community has proved far more accommodating. Still, there are high profile signs that the goodwill is fast expiring; there have been a number of significant exits from the Nokia (or at least Symbian) blogosphere of late, and even those sticking in the game are finding it reasonably difficult to mount a counterargument to the desertion. A commonly-heard theme is that, while hitherto evangelistic bloggers will remain Nokia/Symbian users, they no longer feel it's appropriate to espouse enthusiasm for the brand or platform.

It's tempting to warn Apple that they should be cautious of the years ahead, lest they fall into a similar trap. The recent spate of iPhone 4 issues – which have further divided opinion both about the smartphone itself and the way the company has handled the PR aftermath – has once again brought attention onto an organisation many see as unduly arrogant and over-confident. Apple's open letter to iPhone 4 owners – full of wide-eyed surprise that an antenna issue could even have occurred and followed up by the promise that, even if they were rejigging software to more accurately show fewer bars, at least those few bars would be bigger on-screen – could be interpreted as the perfect "I'm sorry you got upset" faux-apology, skirting neatly around the real issue: people want decent performance, not just decent reminders of mediocre performance, and even if the iPhone 4 really is the best model so far at gripping onto a signal, owners want more than to have their concerns summarily dismissed.

You can only rely on brand-loyalty for so long. You can only nod, and smile, and say you're listening to what consumers want, and then give them what you think they ought to want, for as long as what's on offer is sufficiently superlative to distract them from the fact that you pretty much ignored their answers. Nokia has found itself at a point where not only their mainstream users but their addicts (and their Gurus) aren't willing to accept that the two-pronged Symbian-and-MeeGo approach is necessarily the right way forward. Mass misdirection only works as long as your audience is suitably mesmerised; when they start to stand up and head for the coat-check you need to deliver compelling products not just a compelling message.

Right now, Apple has the compelling product – you can argue against the iPhone 4, but 1.7m unit sales in the first few days is tough to disagree with – but their message feels strained. BGR's insistence that the Steve Jobs email conversation they reported on late last week is authentic, in the face of Apple PR denials, is a worrying corner to have turned. Yes, we're used to PR putting a positive spin on company news, good or bad, but there's an ocean of difference between that and attempting to selectively delete the past. I don't know who's right – we only have easily-fabricated email headers and two sets of reputation to go on – and indeed we may never know conclusively. What we do know is that the official party line from Cupertino has rubbed many users up the wrong way; John Gruber of Daring Fireball has a particularly blunt (and perhaps NSFW for its language) translation of the recent iPhone 4 signal letter, and that's from the perspective of someone generally pro-Apple.

Of course, I'm not entirely naive; while an apology – "we thought people would prioritise general signal improvements over how you hold the phone, and we're sorry that we got that wrong" – might make customers feel a little better, it's unlikely to give shareholders the same warm glow in their bellies. With iPhone 4 units flying off the shelves (if they can even get the stock in long enough to put them there) there seems little need for Apple to be too contrite. Nokia, meanwhile, don't have the same luxury to act as if it's business as usual. Vanjoki needs to capitalise on the current interest in the brand and tell us more about Nokia's vision of "a new world of connected devices"; buzzwords are no longer enough. I'm not asking for a full spec sheet of every device on the roadmap over the next twelve months, but some sort of framework outlining Nokia's intent would at least lend their marketing-speak a little more impact. Look at the interest provoked by the leaked "house of Nokia" strategy diagram last month, then imagine a similar chart sketching out how Nokia's upcoming high-end ecosystem might slot together.

I still don't doubt that Nokia's various teams have the imagination and expertise to make good products. What continues to frustrate is that the dialog between consumer and company remains so stilted. Nokia will offer "true computing power in your pocket ... something that can deliver everything you want, but be with you all the time" Vanjoki says, but with even their evangelists jumping ship, it's clear the Finns have burnt through much of their "trust us" credit. Hyperbole is cheap, and easy, and fills press releases and open letters nicely; some plain talk from Nokia and Apple both would prove far more reassuring.