Is Nokia back?

Can it, will it, could it actually be that Nokia is back in the smartphone game? At the first day of Nokia World, we saw some shreds of evidence that suggest yes – but the Finnish manufacturer is going to have to be pretty shrewd in the coming post-launch months. 

When its own CEO famously slammed the company as a burning platform, it became crystal clear that Nokia was really, like really this time, going to have to re-evaluate its smartphone strategy beyond updating a decade-old platform to work on a touch-screen phone. (Please, someone make Symbian S60 go away.)

And re-evaluate it did – jumping from that burning platform onto a nearby oil rig: Nokia partnered with Microsoft to have special access to its new Windows Phone 7 OS.

Symbian, announced Nokia, would be reserved for its feature phones, where grid menus and chunky transitions are still acceptable. From that day forward, Nokia smartphones would run on Windows Phone 7.

Nokia basically has two advantages over Microsoft’s other hardware partners such as HTC, Samsung and LG – and both stem from the fact that it’s allowed to skate under Microsoft’s notoriously strict hardware and software requirements.

One is the price – Nokia is offering the Lumia 800 and Lumia 710 at 420 (£360) and 270 (£230) respectively. That’s a good chunk less than the £500 or so commanded by, say, the HTC Titan.

As much as I like Windows Phone 7 and believe it’s a way underrated OS, WP7 handsets are just too expensive for what they offer, particularly when the app store is only at 35,000 to the 400,000+ you can get on Android and iOS. 

Nokia has an opportunity here to convince people to switch OS loyalty for a less fearsome price commitment.

But we knew that already, back when the two aging giants first shook hands on the deal. Nokia gets to make cheaper phones, Microsoft gets to hawk its OS to Nokia’s millions-strong user base. (Yep, still the world’s top-selling manufacturer.)

The second advantage, which I only saw today when the new handsets were unveiled, is Nokia Drive. Where other WP7 phones are stuck with the anaemic Bing Maps that actually lacks pedestrian directions, Nokia Windows phones get Nokia Maps and free sat nav. Free.

Nokia Drive is the app you load when you want your smartphone to sit on or near your windshield and make like a sat nav. I’m actually surprised more wasn’t made of this – since it’s pretty damn impressive! Free sat nav – that’s no data charges because you can download maps before you go, and free turn-by-turn voice directions when you’re on the road. You can’t get that on the iPhone, no sir.

Which makes me think that while Nokia is in with a chance to sell some smartphones this year, it’s going to need to spend its marketing money wisely.

All day I’ve been hearing about the Lumia 800. Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone have all sent out releases that they’ll be stocking it (no price details obviously, that would just be TMI, overshare, right?) and Phones 4u, where you can pre-order the phone right now, have invited me in to do a video review (watch out for that tomorrow!).

It’s obvious why – this is the high-end device of the two. But stack it up to other high-end phones – iPhone 4S, Galaxy Nexus – and it’s really just above-average. So that’s the early adopter, high-spender tech addicts out.

For £360, what the Lumia 800 offers is decent, but Nokia’s ace in convincing people to try out an OS that hasn’t quite had the sales was a super-competitive price – and the price of a weekend away isn’t it.

On the other hand, the Lumia 710 at £230 has a real chance at people who are considering buying their first smartphone – the exact market where Nokia has a huge fanbase.

At £230, it’s hovering around the semi-affordable price tag of the Android-powered HTC Wildfire S – yet it boasts a substantially faster processor, bigger screen and a similar if not more comprehensive lineup of social features. It could actually be a viable Android alternative in the mid-range market.

So is Nokia back? Well, more than any other manufacturer, it has an edge in the lower end of the spectrum. Smartphones are about to hit critical mass and by 2015 all phones are expected to be 'smart'. Nokia might be joining the game late, but it's joining at what's probably the best time for it to play the affordability card. 

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