The firm is facing the pangs of transition

Nokia, arguably the most visible mobile phone handset maker in India, immortalised in a Tamil film song about six years ago even if as a pun, is going through the pangs of transition.

Overtaken by a diverse clutch of much smaller rivals in what can be termed the “cheap phone” space, it is still juggling options in the smartphone segment, where much of the action is centred these days.

Faced with this situation, Nokia announced in February 2011 that it was committed to setting a “new strategic direction”.

Nokia Chief Executive Officer Stephen Elop put on a brave face in Singapore, at Nokia Connections 2011 — the annual event where its fans, users and developers gather — and promised to deliver the first of the company's Windows Mobile-based smartphones by the end of the year.

Symbian plans

Mr. Elop said Nokia was committed to its reliance on the Windows Mobile operating system for its smartphone range, even while using the Symbian platform for its handsets with fewer features.

Clearly, in hindsight, Nokia's plans with Symbian had backfired after it acquired Symbian in 2008, hoping to develop it as an answer to Android and iOS, the operating system from Apple.

Mr. Elop's offer to continue supporting Symbian till “at least 2016” leaves a cloud over where the company is headed. Curiously, even as he promised a Windows Mobile-based handset by the end of the year, he also unveiled the N9. The handset, which would be based on the Meego platform, seemed completely out of the blue because that is not where the developers are crowding. This is not without significance, because the extent of application support and availability for a range of handsets is quickly emerging as the gold standard by which handsets are being judged. “Your handset is only as good as the application ecoystem it lives in,” said a marketing head of a leading smartphone manufacturer.

Critical matter

In an industry in which time is of essence — exemplified by the launches of smartphones almost on a daily basis — getting its act together quickly is not just a matter of Nokia's market shares in the various segments. It is simply a matter of life and death. Its introduction of the Symbian Anna, tweaking Symbian in order to make handsets more feature-rich, is clearly perceived as some kind of a stopgap measure to resist a further share in its market share in the premium phone segment.

“We are constantly developing the platform, which is reflected in the development of a new version of the software, Symbian Anna, which will be used on the C-7, the C6, the N8 and the E7, which are to be launched in July,” said Colin Giles, Head, Sales, Nokia. In addition to this, the new “strategic direction” focuses on Nokia's “next one billion phone strategy”, Giles said. For a start, this includes dual SIM handsets such as the C2-02, C2-03 and C2-06. Mr. Giles admitted that the company had “been late to market” in this segment, but said it has “key differentiating” elements in its range of handsets.

In the last few weeks, there has been speculation that rivals operating in the hardware as well as software spaces may target the highly respected company. Although Mr. Elop has denied any such plans, it appears that the acclaimed innovator in the mobile phone business, who still enjoys the reputation of being among the best in terms of after-sales service network, is caught between two stools – the “cheap” phone space and the still rapidly evolving high-end handset market.