Sound the trumpets. Roll the drums. We have reason to celebrate. The first “real” Nokia smartphone, the Nokia 6, is now official.
Indeed, from the moment the press release titled “HMD launches its first smartphone, the Nokia 6 in China” hit mailboxes, there has been an outpouring of sheer joy from a number of people. And that is hardly surprising. After all, Nokia was the phone which actually started the smartphone revolution and spurred many of its trends – it had large storage, app stores and widgets before the likes of iOS and Android existed (we even did a story on ten trends the Finnish phone giant spotted but could not cash on). And it had the sort of market share in the smartphone market that perhaps will never be matched by any other brand in the foreseeable future. Small wonder there are a number of people out there who were very annoyed to see Microsoft seemingly sideline the brand and are now ecstatic at its “return.” There are some who are even confident that it is only a matter of time before the brand once again scales the heights it once occupied.
My advice to them: hold your horses, folks.
Before people jump to conclusions, let me confess that I have a soft corner for Nokia in my heart. My first three smartphones were all Nokia devices – the Nokia N70, the Nokia E61i and the Nokia N95 8GB. And I was also an admirer of the company’s foray into Windows Phone – I think the Lumia 520 actually paved the way for sub-Rs 10,000 smartphones that did not compromise performance (it outgunned Android phones in that segment spectacularly and for a brief period of time even raised visions of a potential challenger to Google’s mighty mobile OS in the budget smartphone segment). And I do think that Nokia laid the foundation for the “smartphone as a camera” trend with its amazing N95 as well as the PureView series.
But my affection and admiration for the brand are tempered with the fact that while it commanded an unprecedented market share in the smartphone market, it also frittered it away, so spectacularly that it went from being number one in the smartphone market to being sold to Microsoft at what many considered to be a staggeringly low price in less than half a decade. And the key reason for that was, ironically for a company that set so many trends, a refusal to acknowledge change. We had numerous exchanges with key Nokia executives in the 2007-2012 period and the one thing that always struck us about the company was its seeming obliviousness to changing consumer behavior.
Even when it became abundantly clear that both iOS and Android were potent threats, the brand never really came out with the sort of response its fans expected and always seemed to be playing catch up. Symbian was never adapted to be easily used with social networks. And for reasons best known to itself, the brand was not able to leverage its massive advantage in GPS and music – you actually got unlimited music downloads with many Nokia devices for a year (hear ye, those who shell out monthly subscriptions for Apple Music!). Even when it moved to the Windows Phone platform, the brand somehow seemed to be in a world of its known, ignoring features like swipe to type and notifications for a while, and taking way too long to build a closer relationship with its desktop counterpart. The brand also took way too long to get into the Android game – no, contrary to the “Nokia 6 marks the first step for the Nokia brand into Android smartphones with more to come in H1 2017” line from the HMD press release about the Nokia 6, the stark fact is that Nokia tried its own hand at Android (albeit a forked version) as far back in 2014 with the Nokia X, Nokia X+, and XL, and could not build up significant traction there, notwithstanding its phenomenal goodwill and distribution network.
All of which is why I am treating the arrival of the Nokia 6 with due caution. Yes, it is great to have an old favorite back in the game. But it is a game in which the rules have changed significantly since Nokia’s sabbatical and in which a number of new players have started carving significant niches for themselves, especially in the very market in which Nokia has placed the Nokia 6 (China). And we are not too sure if the brand has got its pricing right – it is charging RMB 1699 for the Nokia 6, which (to refresh your memory) has a 5.5 inch full HD display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 processor, 4 GB RAM, 16 megapixel and 8-megapixel cameras. For comparison, the Snapdragon 820 toting and sleekly designed Xiaomi Mi 5 starts at RMB 1799, and the recently released Honor 6X also comes for RMB 1599, and offers superior specs. We are not getting into a spec for spec comparison here, but suffice to say that it does not seem that the new Nokia will be a front runner in value for money price-spec equation. Indeed if the price of the Nokia 6 is any indication, it seems increasingly likely that a higher end device is likely to command a premium pricing. And that would imply tangling with some deeply entrenched brands.
No, I am not writing off the new Nokia. Far from it. I would be delighted to see it do well, because if the Nokia 6 does too well it is likely to do so on the basis of the experience it delivers rather than its (relatively routine) specs. And honestly, the more players in the market, the better it is for the users. But contrary to what many of its fans would have us believe, Nokia will have to do more than just turn up with an Android phone to reconquer the smartphone world.
The days when it could rest on its laurels are long over. Indeed, now the brand will have to approach the market with a very different mentality than the one that saw it fritter away its massive lead of less than a decade ago. A mentality best exemplified by a senior Nokia India executive who poked fun at an all-touchscreen device in my possession from a competing brand, and claimed that users would never give up a “real” keyboard.
The device was the first iPhone. The year was 2008.
This is 2017. Welcome back, Nokia.