Now The Music Has Stopped, Does Nokia Have A Seat in America?

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While I'm sure the problem is not as simple as he makes out, Robert Scoble's reasoning on why Palm can now rule the American smartphone market and why both Microsoft and Nokia are out the game, makes for a great rule of thumb. In short, there are six smartphone/OS competitors (Nokia, Microsoft and Palm as mentioned, plus Apple, Research in Motion and Google Android) and only four US networks (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile). Now the music has stopped, there are no seats left for the phones from Espoo and Seattle. Read on for my take on all this....

As many have highlighted, the American market is cut from a different cloth to the rest of the world. Where we in Europe are more than comfortable with the idea that the phone and the contract can be bought separately (although many people do still buy their phones alongside a contract to get the lower price via subsidy), the concept of unlocked phones in the US market is still many years behind that in other parts of the world.

This is one of my key disappointments in Apple's handling of the iPhone. That device, thanks to the legendary loyalty of Apple fans, had a chance to really shake up the US market. Instead they chickened out and went with a tie-up through AT&T and kept the market as it is.

Nokia devices are, of course, available on these networks, but they tend to be further down the list of phones, invariably filling the mid and lower tiers – and will receive a correspondingly lower marketing spend from the host networks than the flagship devices. And that means Nokia are going to have do a lot of marketing on their own in the US.

It needs to be smart marketing, using low cost, high impact routes – something that I think the new appreciation for social media and the internet that the N97 launch leveraged will be perfect for. It's going to need a huge amount of education as well so people will feel able to swap out SIM cards and use a non-network phone on their network, and it's going to need real commitment.

If Nokia can't get established in the US in 2009, there are going to be serious questions about their whole smartphone strategy.

Nokia HQ
Can Nokia reach out from Finland to America?

While it's true that the bottom line can do without the contribution of America, there are two vital areas that this country can provide. The first is a significant amount of the world's on-line traffic, especially in the area of Web 2.0 services and Technology blogs and commentary. “The buzz” is vital, as can be seen in the difference between the launch of the N97 and the E90 and how they were perceived on-line, even taking into account the years between the two launches.

The second is in the pool of developers that work on the smartphone. Again the high numbers in the US are out of proportion with the market, but without S60 devices to sell to, they'll focus on the phones that provide them the best return on their effort. Right now that's the iPhone. With both Google and Palm ready to release developer friendly routes to getsoftware  on the Android G1 and Palm Pre, where is the compelling argument to develop for S60?

That's why America, in a nutshell, is important to Nokia. And that's why the perceptions that Nokia don't get the US, don't care or have abandoned it, can be so destructive.

Rather than throw stones and look at previous campaigns in the US, if you were looking to secure a beach head in the US market, where and how would you start?

-- Ewan Spence, Jan 2009.