There was an interesting question that came up recently and I wanted to take a moment to examine the topic. I’m as big a fan of Nokia as the next guy. Heck, my last feature phones before graduating up to smart phones were Nokia. So I’m not a Nokia hater by any means. But the question did give me pause: Does Microsoft need Nokia?
This is a multi-faceted question, as are most good questions. There’s the hardware side, the software side, and as they love to say in the dugout of a baseball game, “the intangibles.” Microsoft has not been shy about recruiting new and exciting OEM’s to make Windows Phone hardware. Adding in the two newcomers from Build last week, Microsoft has somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 OEMs all committed to bringing Windows Phone hardware to the masses. This is a pretty impressive leap forward from the one-plus-a-couple-others model that Microsoft had going just as little as a year ago.
It’s true that Nokia has been the champion of Windows Phone and arguably what has kept Microsoft’s mobile platform afloat for these past few years. Sure HTC and Samsung and some others had some offerings, but when I see a Windows Phone in the wild, it always has a Nokia sticker on it. So Nokia has been one of the driving forces behind Windows Phone as a platform, making premium quality and dare, I say fun hardware these last years.
Nokia has also made huge strides in the imaging department bringing the first (and second) 41 Megapixel camera to phones, plus it is making 20 megapixels pretty much the standard by which cameras should be measured. Other Android OEMs have followed suit and soon everyone will be able to thank Nokia for their 20 megapixel shooters on their smartphones. Ok, maybe not exclusively Nokia, but they’ve helped.
But new OEMs can make up the difference in hardware. Sure, most of the new OEMs aren’t exactly known for their cutting edge hardware design, but HTC? If any company is capable of picking up the torch when and if Nokia drops it, it’s HTC. Look no further than the M8 and even the M7 to see what high-quality hardware can look like. Sure the camera is…well the camera. But I would find little to complain about seeing a new Windows Phone looking like that. So Nokia isn’t necessarily going to be the standard by which high-end Windows Phone hardware will be measured.
There’s an app for that
Nokia’s software services cannot be underestimated either. Nokia has a bevy of software it can offer the Windows Phone world including it’s Here Maps software. Here Maps alone has often been touted as being the cream of the crop when it comes to mapping, some even declaring it better than Google. Navigation on a smartphone is not something that can be overlooked in 2014, and the offline mapping capabilities cannot be underestimated when one is navigating in areas that have less than a quality signal. And that’s just mapping. Nokia’s other software offerings – refocus, smart shoot, et al. have a lot to offer Microsoft’s mobile platform.
Again, HTC has shown that software is not an issue here. Everything from Sense 6 to Blinkfeed is top notch. Can HTC pick up that torch too? Well, it remains to be seen. HTC does have quality in mind when building smartphones and Windows Pone can definitely benefit from that philosophy.
It’s the little things
Finally, we talk about Nokia’s “intangibles”. Nokia carries with it a name and a reputation for being high-quality and pushing the envelope in the hardware department. It has also been Microsoft’s largest and longest supporter in the mobile arena. It has done more to push software development than any other company out there, short of Microsoft itself. It is unquestionably Windows Phone’s biggest supporter, and obviously is now owned by the platform for which it has done so much.
It made perfect sense for Microsoft to buy Nokia. At the time, Nokia was synonymous with Windows Phone. Its mobility division was living in the red quarter after quarter, despite producing the highest quality hardware in a Windows Phone and virtually revolutionizing the smartphone camera industry. Forty-one megapixels cannot be understated. So Microsoft scooped up this deal both to keep it’s chief supporter afloat while at the same time bringing some of the industry’s brightest minds underneath its very well funded umbrella. Add to that Nokia’s perfect fit with where Microsoft needed to go (and will under Satya Nadella’s leadership) – mobile and cloud.
The fact that a boatload of OEMs have signed on to produce hardware does nothing to change this strategy. In fact, these new OEMs will be competing with Nokia and Microsoft to bring the best and the best values to the smartphone market and competition is nothing but a win in the minds of consumers. If Nokia pushes HTC to new heights of design and build quality, or vice versa, so much the better for you and me. If Nokia pushes the threshold lower for the low-end smartphone market, so much the better for the platform and for the rest of the world.
I mentioned before that all good questions are multi faceted. Similarly, the answers to good questions are never cut and dried. Does Microsoft need Nokia? Probably not as much as it needed it a year ago. But considering what Nokia brings to the table, it’s too valuable to shutter up. As much as HTC and Samsung could make some killer hardware or throw a barge load of cash at a marketing campaign, they could also make half-hearted efforts and retreat, not entirely unlike what they did during the last round. Nokia being a fixture of the company secures the platform’s future in the mobile industry with the biggest name currently on the platform. That alone is worth the cost of keeping the lights on.