There was a time, not so very long ago, when Microsoft was a top seller of smartphone software. And Nokia, the Finnish electronics company, was the top seller of mobile devices. Then both of them got blindsided by Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007. At first they just laughed. Who would buy that crazy overpriced phone from Apple that doesn’t even have a keyboard? Lots of people, it turns out. Which is why Nokia has seen the market share of its Symbian smartphone platform collapse to 19 percent today from 63 percent in 2007, according to IDC, a market researcher. Microsoft once had 13 percent share but now has only 2 percent, IDC says, making its presence almost negligible.
But now, working together, these companies are trying to plot a comeback, and based on the phone they introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show on Monday, they might actually stand a chance.
The sleek new Nokia Lumia 900 (PDF) has a 4.3-inch screen, an 8-megapixel camera, and runs on AT&T’s speedy new 4G LTE network. The phone “represents a new dawn for Nokia in the U.S.,” said Chris Weber, president of Nokia Americas, in a press release.
Nokia also released a YouTube video showing off the new phone.
The Lumia 900 runs the latest version of Microsoft’s mobile phone software, which is called Windows Phone 7.5 (code-name: Mango). This is a stunning piece of software that is radically different from what you get on an Apple iPhone or any of the Android phones. Instead of a bunch of same-sized icons, Microsoft uses big, bright-colored tiles. They can be moved around and customized. Some are “dynamic,” meaning they display information that is constantly updated when, for example, one of your friends posts something on Facebook.
Microsoft and Nokia struck a major partnership deal last February, with Nokia committing to make Windows Phone its primary mobile operating software. Previously Nokia had developed its own operating software. The deal was helped along by the fact that Nokia’s CEO, Stephen Elop, is a former Microsoft executive.
I recently I spent some time with the Lumia 900’s little brother, the Lumia 800, which has been a hot seller in Europe but hasn’t come to the U.S. yet. That phone also runs the Mango operating system and it’s a gorgeous device, with an elegant shell beautifully crafted from a single piece of polycarbonate plastic. The operating software is smooth and fast. In many ways the Lumia 800 was the nicest phone I’ve ever used. It makes the iPhone seem old and outdated, and makes Android phones seem big and clunky.
I usually have a bunch of different cell phones at any given time. I set them up so they all ring whenever someone calls my mobile number. Then I try not to think about it and just see which phone I tend to pick up when they all ring, and which phone I grab to toss in my pocket when I go out. Over and over again, the Lumia 800 was the one I picked up.
The Lumia 900 picks up from there. It’s bigger than the Lumia 800, which has a 3.7-inch screen. But it has the same sleek European modernist design feel.
Indeed, when it comes to design the new Nokia flagship devices have arguably leapfrogged past Apple, the company known for its cutting-edge design. It’s hard to predict whether the new Noka Windows phones will catch on in America. Apple and Android are so well entrenched that some pundits think whatever Microsoft and Nokia are doing will be too little too late. Not surprisingly, the folks at Nokia beg to differ. “I still believe that great products that are perceived as modern can change things very quickly,” says Marko Ahtisaari, the head of design at Nokia. “This is a long race that we are starting.”
As he puts it, the mobile phone market today is about where the automotive industry was in the 1890s, when standards had not emerged and people hadn’t even decided that a steering wheel was the best way to control a car.
Ahtisaari says the user interface of the iPhone “is becoming more dated as we speak. People think the iOS interface is the new generic and nothing will ever be better, but I disagree with that.”
Since joining Nokia in 2009, Ahtisaari has been trying to craft a new design language. “We share this focus on refining, taking away complexity, removing anything unnecessary, doing fewer things but better,” he says.
While pundits and customers in the U.S. focus on high-end devices, Ahtisaari says the bigger and more interesting opportunity lies at the other end of the market. “The big story is in Asia and Africa, it’s the next billion people and how we bring them online,” he says. “The line between smartphones and feature phones is becoming completely blurred. I’m as excited about making a breakthrough in a 10-euro phone as I am about a 1,000-euro phone. The next billion people coming online, that’s the real story.”
Indeed, the mobile market is so big that there may be room for everyone. I recently had lunch with a guy who works in the mobile space, and I asked him which platform he thought would win—Apple, Android or Windows. “All of them,” he said. The folks at Nokia and Microsoft are surely hoping that’s the case. With the new Lumia phones, they’ve made about as strong an effort as could be imagined.