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Nokia's Elopocalypse two years on: Has Microsoft kept its side of the bargain?
The Lumias are here. What's Redmond got to show?
Analysis It's two years since the "Elopocalypse". This week in 2011 Nokia's new CEO Stephen Elop set Europe's biggest technology company off in a radical new direction.
Nokia would license its flagship phone software from Microsoft, rather than develop its own, set fire to three of its own mobile platforms, and eventually shed thousands of jobs. Nokia now has a smaller head count than at any time since 1998.
Since it's also a year since Nokia ripped up the Symbian roadmap - as we exclusively revealed at the time - it's a good time to ask: how's the partnership with Microsoft going?
Nokia has started to deliver very attractive products again. During what I call the "years of madness" - sweeping from Nokia's peak in 2007* to the Elopocalypse - good reviews were rare. Nokia was unable to make Symbian competitive, it crippled its devices with strange restrictions and choices, and all the while the long-slated successor Meego failed to arrive in any meaningful sense - beset, we now know, by pointless technical in-fighting.
That period of incoherence now seems like a hallucination. Did you dream that at one point, Nokia decided to give all its phones the same name, such as C3, differentiated only by an extension number? No you didn't. It was as if the marketing had been handed to a maniac, who then collapsed, nose first, onto the keyboard.
Well, that's changed with the new Windows Phone 8-powered Lumia series. Rarely has a phone been greeted with such a unanimously warm reception as the latest device - the Lumia 620. TV's Gadget Show anointing the £150 midget gem as the best budget smartphone and even the best Windows phone. (After my own real-world hands on, I wholeheartedly agree - it's a delight to use.)
At the high end of Nokia's smart phone range, the tank-like Lumia 920 has captured plenty of attention for its imaging and robustness, and there's an attractive cheaper sibling, the 820.
(I'll need convincing that there's necessarily much room in the marketplace between the yet-to-be-announced 720 and a discounted 820. There's a natural gap when you consider screen sizes, between the 3.8-inch 620 and the 4.3-inch 820. But the latter, with its wireless charging and decent camera, is always going to be more attractive than a 4-inch model without such features, if the prices are comparable. Then again, I'm not paid the big bucks to make such decisions.)
What's really surprised reviewers with the new Lumia 620, a smartphone with a feature-phone price, is how much smoother the whole package runs than a comparable Android mobe.
Yes, there are much cheaper Android devices, but it's down at the nasty end of the market. When Elop formally announced the Microsoft partnership on 11 February, two years ago, he stressed how important it was to get into the "value segment" to compete with Android. For Western markets - where "value" means something completely different to what it means in Vietnam - the partnership has really delivered.
The Lumia 620, finally a Nokia phone people will like after many years of hurt
So Nokia may no longer need fear a "Microsoft Surface smartphone" - the mythical, Microsoft-branded showcase device that would compete directly with Nokia's Lumias. If the two Surface tablets Microsoft has released are a benchmark, then a Surface smartphone is going to be a future pub quiz answer rather than a market-shaker. Of far more concern is Huawei's Windows Phone family, which aggressively eats into Nokia's 78 per cent share of the Windows Phone business.
In short, Nokia has done everything it can to keep its side of the bargain with Microsoft. The Redmond giant's Windows Phone operating system is more attractive today because an experienced manufacturer and designer is putting its best work into it - rather than treating it as an afterthought.
But if only the same was true of Microsoft. Fan blogs have recently become more vocal about the pace of Microsoft's WinPho development efforts. Here's one cri de coeur from WP Sauce - echoed at My Nokia Blog.
They're both bang on the money.
While Nokia forges ahead, the Microsoft team appears to be exhausted. Looking at the state of the Me Tile (which remains unchanged since 2010) and the state of the app store, this is a platform that's falling into the doldrums. Even Symbian, in its final incarnation on the 808 PureView, had a system-wide Spotlight-style search that worked.
BlackBerry's efforts in launching a brand-new phone operating system with Instagram and Skype app ports really should be a wake up call to Redmond. Fans have noticed. Anecdotally, I hear that the apps issue is the most-cited reasons for a purchaser returning a Nokia phone. Microsoft needs to deliver a few things in Barcelona at phone trade-show Mobile World Congress this month.
Firstly, the features that didn't make the final cut of Windows Phone 8, such as notifications and a revamped Me hub, must be announced with a near-future date for their delivery.
Secondly, developers need a coherent roadmap with a unified software interface, rather than the dog's breakfast of incompatible code that Microsoft Windows chief Steve Sinofsky left them with. And Microsoft needs to put aside all other distractions and make its phone OS its priority number one (and two and three).
The touch-driven Metro user interface in Windows 8 on PCs is not driving demand anywhere across the line - if anything, it's tarnished the brand. Novelties such as Redmond's Surface touchscreen-laptop-tablet-thing are a huge distraction.
Yet achieving even modest success in the smartphone market will drive demand for these new niches. Microsoft really can't afford to rely on the "build it and they'll come" ethos any longer. If the absence of Instagram is such a deal breaker for the average punter, then pay Facebook to port it. And while you're at it, why does Microsoft-owned Skype work well on every mobile platform except Microsoft-owned Windows Phone?
That's a lot of questions - in Barcelona, we'll hopefully get some answers. ®
* Annual earnings actually peaked at €74bn in its 2008 financial year.