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Nokia Fest.

The Ferret attended the 2 day Nokia Connection press conference in Helsinki earlier this week. Helsinki is kind of a fun place, especially with a sun that resolutely refuses to set no matter what the time of night, but the visit was overshadowed a little by the rather lacklustre performance of the normally ebullient Nokia battle corps.

So what’s up with Nokia? Good question. On the face of it the company is managing fairly well in an increasingly hostile marketplace, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear that things are not sitting at all well with the Leningrad Cowboys [an ‘in’ Finnish joke for youse all there]. Nokia is clearly being hit hard by the competition.

It’s not just that the Nokia global market share is declining (down to 28% from a high of around 35%) , it’s also the fact that it is not clear that management knows how to stop the rot. The Nokia machine is not really doing anything catastrophically wrong, it’s simply that the competition appears to be getting better all the time. Think of the pack catching the lone rider out in front on the Tour de France and you’re probably somewhere close. In fact it feels as though the company is now engaged in playing catch up to the market, rather than leading the way. A strange affair indeed.

Proof? Let’s look at the product launches.

The Belle du Jour was the Nokia 6630, a triple band, all singing and dancing handset which is billed also as the smallest 3G phone in the world. Yeah it’s OK, but it’s not magnificent. Know what I mean? Even the specs are a little ho hum for a flagship product….

‘3G Speed with Series 60, 1.3 megapixel camera sensor, effective resolution 1.23 megapixels, 10 MB internal dynamic memory with hot swap 64 MB Reduced Size MultiMediaCard (MMC), Video recording time up to 1 hour and Web browser with improved HTML support.’

Nor were the other product launches that exciting either.

The Nokia 6260 is a clamshell flip phone. Riiight! Seen that anywhere before? Yep just about everywhere.

The Nokia 6170 is also a clamshell. Get the idea….?

OK rather than wasting time on the riveting detail let’s just say here that the company may have a sleeper hit on its hands with this handset, if only for one thing. The 6170 sports quite large keys, which should attract the increasing number of people who find the fiddly little buttons on modern phones a royal pain in the derriere. It’s a small thing, but the ageing baby boomer demographic notice things like this.

Am I reaching? Probably.

And that’s it (apart from two rather boring low end handsets with colour screens and aggressive pricing).

Oh, and there were some other add-ons.

The Nokia Wireless Keyboard is a Bluetooth wireless keyboard. Er..form an orderly queue please.

Aha, but what have we here? The Nokia Video Call Stand PT-8. At last, something genuinely nifty – a cute little video conferencing stand designed for the 3G 6630 handset. Nice idea and a little more like a real Nokia buzz product.

I had a chat with a few of the Nokia troops during the visit and they desperately tried to convince me that they had identified the problems and were addressing them, but to be honest they didn’t impress this reporter as hugely confident. For example company chairman Jorma Ollila came across as incredibly hesitant in his opening keynote, and no more so than when he talked about ‘rationalising’ the product range to become more competitive. Basically this appears to mean dropping adventurous concepts like the Nokia 7700 in favour of an unspecified ‘media device’ to be launched sometime next year. Who knows what else will become a victim of this form of rationalisation?

We’re used to seeing genuine innovation from the Finns, and this was woefully absent this week. And therein may lie the real problem that Nokia face in the future, how to keep innovating in the face of an increasingly commoditised marketplace. Whereas at one time Nokia phones were sought after because of their superb build quality and user friendly features and interface, nowadays just about every handset comes with a rich set of features and a funky UI.

Even the cheapest Far East clone now sports a decent messaging suite and colourful icons, and Symbian smartphones from every country in the world match, and in some cases exceed, the Nokia models in terms of ease of use and features. Hot swappable MMC cards? Siemens SX1 were there ages ago, folks. Stereo radio and MP3 player as standard? SX1 again. And so on. Innovating in a standards driven world eventually gets real tricky.

You sense that a company is not happy when they fudge Q&A sessions and routinely avoid answering contentious questions by simply ignoring them. And just look how obscenely cheerful they were…

So there you have it. Nokia, beleaguered, befuddled and bemused? Perhaps. But it’s still too early to write off the Flying Finns just yet. There’s an old Finnish proverb [No Finnish proverbs please…Ed], well OK, let’s just say that the Finns are known as a fighting force bar none, so don’t start selling those shares just yet. As the very nice lady journalist from the Finnish television station suggested when we discussed the weary, battle scarred atmosphere of the conference – “The young executives who started the Nokia cellphone revolution with such energy are now getting older and a little more tired, but don’t forget how much is at stake in terms of our national pride and GDP.”

The flight home was nice.

[Highlight of the first day was a neat little presentation by the amiable arch blogger Joichi Ito, talking about opening up technologies to encourage innovation. I briefly introduced myself afterwards, since he had recently featured the Ferret on his blog, but I could tell by the somewhat confused look on his face that he didn’t really understand why this buffoon of a Ferret had accosted him so. Ah well, such is the life of a polecat!]

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