Nokia Rebooted: Apple lessons, HTC threats & Symbian's last stand

Leaner, tighter-lipped and very much aware of what's at stake. Nokia may be a lot of things, but naive isn't one of them. With a share price gutted by dreary financial predictions, and a quarter or two before the first Windows Phone devices are expected to do anything to change that, right now the only headlines tend to be bad ones: redundancies, reductions and generally biding time. SlashGear met with Nokia's new UK team at what – though they were careful not to bill it as such – was in effect a corporate reboot, to talk lessons learned from Apple, the threat to HTC and why Symbian won't go quietly into the night.

SlashGear may predominantly cover the North American market, but as a European myself I've got a soft spot for Nokia that some of my US colleagues don't quite understand. For many in Europe, a Nokia was their first ever cellphone; the brand may not have penetrated North America as the company may have hoped, but there's a huge and loyal – and most notably quiet – audience outside of there with plenty of affection for Nokia.

[aquote]Affection and nostalgia don't sell cellphones[/aquote]

Affection and nostalgia don't sell cellphones, and nor should they. If the only reason you're buying something – whether a handset, a car or anything else – is because you find the brand endearing, then it's usually a recipe for resentment down the line. "Look at my beautiful new Nokia" quickly turns to "How could Nokia let me down so badly?" when your shiny smartphone falls short of what everybody else's handset can do.

Pair affection with a solid, legitimate option on the market, though, and you've got a waking kraken; that's the reason HTC and other Windows Phone OEMs are likely looking nervously toward Finland right now. HTC knows the value of brand-awareness – that's the reason it pushed so hard to shift from a white label manufacturer to having its own name on phones. Huawei and ZTE are attempting the same thing today. Brand loyalty isn't quite enough, on its own, to get you past bad products, but it's sometimes enough to tip a decision between your phone and that of a rival when it gets close to the checkout.

[aquote]The iron shutters are down around development – it's "Apple-style" secrecy right now[/aquote]

Talk to anybody in Nokia, and it's clear they're aware of the potential if they can only get the first Windows Phone launch right. That's why the iron shutters are down around development: as one of the product team told me yesterday, it's "Apple-style" secrecy right now. Well known industry players are finding their sources inside the company drying up. The 12-18 month long development cycles of before – during which time leaks were pretty much the rule and not the exception – have been clamped down upon, hurried up and shrouded in a new level of secrecy.

It's hard not to see some of Apple's impact on all this, and not just when it comes to stealth. Nokia isn't taking its fans for granted – the people working there know they need to wow. "If we can build the same hype around our first Windows Phone as Apple does about iPhone..." one told me longingly. It was partly tongue-in-cheek – we'd just been discussing night-long queues of people outside Apple Stores, something which (correct me if I'm wrong) is yet to happen for a Symbian or Maemo device – but not entirely so. There's a confidence in the company's hardware abilities that's tellingly new from the stolid Finnish modesty of before, along with a readiness to admit that, while Symbian may have its strengths, it's time for something new.

That "new" will actually be a two-part strike. Windows Phone is the obvious play for the market, and Nokia has identified its audience well. Reviewer response to the first-gen Windows Phone release was surprisingly positive – "a good first attempt" was the general consensus – even if consumers then didn't go out and actually buy the phones. Mango will help polish the rough edges that remain in WP7, and Nokia will be a recognizable brand not just to existing smartphone buyers but to the mass of feature-phone owners whose eye is caught by a familiar logo.

[aquote]If you like Android then you'll love Symbian Belle[/aquote]

Meanwhile, Symbian looks set to go out with a bang. Nokia may be phasing the platform away, but Symbian "Belle" – the successor to "Anna" as launched on the E6 and X7 this month – promises to make the aging OS more competitive. There's a palpable enthusiasm among Nokia staff about Belle; more than one said to me, on finding I generally carry an Android device, "oh, if you like Android then you'll love Belle." Extracting further details proved difficult, given the new corporate vow of silence, but the low- and mid-tier markets where Symbian is expected to persist may not, if Belle plays out, necessarily miss Android's entry-level appeal.

HTC is likely to be the loser in all this, its undeniable strengths in solid hardware design nonetheless at risk of being shadowed by Nokia's arguably greater proficiency at the same, coupled with a greater flexibility with the Windows Phone OS itself. The cynic might wonder whether that's the reason we've seen plenty of movement in HTC Android devices this year, and no new HTC Windows Phones, as the company consolidates its position in the market it can handle best. Samsung is perhaps less precarious, its enviable supply chain prowess giving it the lead on cutting-edge hardware.

And Apple? Just as Nokia has finally woken up to the Cupertino company's talents – in more than just design and innovation – there's a lot of respect there for the controlled, end-to-end ecosystem Apple has created. Part of challenging that is breaking into the point-of-sale experience, something both Nokia and Windows Phone are struggling with right now. If phone salespeople are using iPhones and Android handsets then they're more likely to be the devices they recommend.

Nokia's decision to close down several of its online phone stores may have seen it criticized this past week, but the company's argument makes sense: there are plenty of places to buy SIM-free devices online, well known to the sort of savvy consumer who knows what exactly it is they're looking for. The real potential gains are in the "swing states" – the people who wander into their local phone store looking to upgrade and with few preconceptions (or "I think I want an iPhone" but an open-minded willingness to be persuaded otherwise). Expect a significant play by Nokia as it shifts focus to the sort of consumers most likely to be Windows Phone converts.

[aquote]It's taken the past few ruinous quarters to stir them out of their status quo[/aquote]

I've been writing about Nokia for a long time now. I've also had the opportunity to meet with many of the Nokia team, from engineers to community outreach to innovators to top level execs. They've invariably been enthusiastic, creative and interesting people, and it's always been fascinating to see how – whether by corporate stagnation, too many layers of box-ticking and paperwork, departmental in-fighting or mediocre communication – the end products have failed to deliver the same spark that the employees have. There's a sense that its taken the past few ruinous quarters to stir them out of their status quo, and while we may hear about the bad decisions and the appalling stock dives, there's also some much needed mondernization of thinking going on.

There have been redundancies, yes, but what we've heard less about is how Nokia is working with the engineers it let go to help them set up their own companies. In fact, Nokia is investing a 50-percent share in many of them; as one person put it, "we may not be in a position to make a left-handed Bluetooth corkscrew right now, but you go make it and we'll buy it off you." Rather than ideas being left on desks or buried amid corporate bluster, talented people are being encouraged – and supported – to go it alone.

Will the first Nokia Windows Phone handsets be a success? It's obviously far too early to say – no matter how nicely I asked, nobody did a Stephen Elop and whipped out a prototype for me to look at. What's definitely needed, though, is for Nokia to spread a little of the on-message enthusiasm from its refreshed team to phone shops and amid tech writers. It's an odd position to be in, part underdog and part ailing-giant: the kraken is most definitely awakening, we just need to see if it's with a squeak or a roar.