Is Nokia’s first Windows Phone enough to revive the Once Mighty Finn’s smartphone fortunes, asks’s Natasha Lomas.

On Wednesday a super excitable Nokia exec team unveiled its first smartphone running Microsoft’s mobile OS. It was the biggest day for the mobile maker since its Finnish leader Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo was replaced last year by the first non-Finn in Nokia’s long history.

Nokia’s hopes for its smartphone revival rest on Windows Phone. Thanks to CEO Stephen Elop’s decision to abandon the company’s homegrown mobile OS efforts to hitch a ride on Microsoft’s platform, Nokia and Microsoft are joined at the mobile hip.

A Finn-less tag team of execs were marshalled for yesterday’s big announcement, including a Canadian, an Australian, an Indian and at least one American. Two were former Microsoft execs. Elop – one of the ex-Microsoft workers – made a show of running on stage to make his contributions, with the eagerness of a puppy.

One exec danced, another sighed with emotion, and Kevin Shields, senior VP of program and product management for the smart device at Nokia, screamed “AWWWWWWWWWWEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMEEEEEEEE” with such blood-curdling violence I thought Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had been hidden inside a Nokia man-suit and was clawing his way out.

Nokia Lumia 800

The Lumia 800: Is it different enough to stand out in the Windows Phone crowd? Photo: Nokia

And that was just the Lumia foreplay. The climax of Nokia’s presentations was the unveiling of an oxymoronic marketing slogan – over-egged to match the exuberance of Elop and co: ‘The Amazing Everyday’.

Elop said Nokia’s aspiration with Lumia – beyond the obvious but unspoken aspiration of selling truckloads of Lumias to steal back market share from Android and iOS – is to “help people upgrade an ordinary moment into an exciting one”.

In the case of Lumia, Nokia stands accused of trying to do just that – trying to manufacture excitement for a product that could be described as just another Windows Phone.

Why ‘just another’? Because Microsoft tightly controls the look and feel of its mobile platform – vetoing customisation of the OS using proprietary skins, as well as stipulating minimum hardware specifications such as the three buttons on the front of every Windows Phone device. It also encourages developers to adopt its Metro interface style – so even third-party Windows Phone apps can come dressed in a Windows Phone uniform.

All this makes Windows Phones rather samey, regardless of whether its user has an HTC, LG or Samsung device in their pocket.

So when Nokia signed up to Microsoft’s OS, the question on everyone’s lips was how would Nokia differentiate its devices? What could it do to convince mobile users to buy a Nokia Windows Phone instead of A N Other Windows Phone?

At Nokia World this week, Elop’s answer to the differentiation question was clearly incomplete: a selection of apps such as the free Nokia Drive sat-nav app, Mix Radio – free streaming music mixes, and a sports app in partnership with ESPN that would have feature sets exclusive to Nokia Windows Phones.

It’s a start, say analysts, but Nokia will need to…

Stephen Elop announcing the Lumia 800 at Nokia World

Stephen Elop announcing the Nokia Lumia 800 at Nokia WorldPhoto: Natasha Lomas/

…do more in future to make sure it stands out. “Today Nokia proved it can execute,” tweeted Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi. “Now it needs to keep the work up and deliver a more differentiated experience with the next version of the OS.”

None of these apps are “standout features” on their own, added Ovum’s Nick Dillon in a blog post.

By far the biggest differentiator is the Lumia 800’s iPod-Nano-esque hardware, albeit identical in looks to Nokia’s N9 MeeGo handset.

Independent analyst Ian Fogg described the Lumia 800 as a “strongly differentiated industrial design” and “the most outstanding example of phone industrial design to arrive in 2011, bar none, Apple included”.

But Fogg also reckons Nokia hasn’t yet proved it can differentiate software-wise, under the Windows Phone umbrella, noting in a blog post: “These initial products have only light Nokia-specific adjustments.”

Does the Lumia 800 illuminate a bright future for Nokia under Windows Phone? It’s too soon to say.

Nokia has previously recognised the risk of its brand identity being eroded by Windows Phone – and that risk remains. Beneath the flashy exterior, the Lumia is still a Windows Phone, almost exactly like any other Windows Phone – none of which have been selling very well.

Lee Williams, the former executive director of the (former) Symbian Foundation, summed up his thoughts on the Nokia Lumia in a tweet: “Lumia is Nokia’s new sub brand,” he wrote. “Marginalising their 2nd most valuable property.”

He also pointed out that Lumia is slang for ‘prostitute’ in Spanish – something Elop and co did not flag up in their presentations. Lumia, Elop insisted, means ‘light’ – and ‘new hope’ for Nokia.

As a metaphor, prostitution has especially uncomfortable connotations for Nokia. By abandoning its own OS efforts in favour of Microsoft’s, the Once Mighty Finn risks becoming the Minority Finn: a mere vessel serving Microsoft’s ends at the expense of its own, and working itself into a position where it lacks the autonomy to control its own destiny.

So while Nokia’s long-term prospects under the Windows Phone umbrella remain uncertain – it’s still entirely possible to envisage a Microsoft buyout in the Finn’s future.