Looking For A Worthy Competitor To Apple? Nokia’s Got The Goods [CES 2012]

By

Stephen Elop

LAS VEGAS, CES 2012 — Over the past year, Nokia has been making steady incremental improvements to reshape the company’s image by showing the world that greatness doesn’t come to those who merely copy what the best company is doing. Greatness is achieved by setting yourself apart from the competition by taking a radically different path than everyone else. Apple has known this fact for decades and have used it become the most admired company in the world, and during Nokia’s press conference today it was readily apparent that the only company that should be viewed as a truly worthy adversary to Apple in the mobile market is Nokia.

For the past 18 months Nokia has been in the process of transitioning from a company viewed by many as an outcast mobile handset maker, to one that deserves the tech world’s respect. With a commanding presence on the stage at CES, Nokia’s CEO, Stephen Elop, told reporters of the company’s outline to create progressively better products that will act as beachheads for an impending assault on the US Market. Each new Lumia phone has been a stepping stone to something better, and at CES today Nokia unveiled what we think is the best phone on the market that isn’t an iPhone.

We’re not bashing on Android (yet); we just think that Nokia and Stephen Elop “get” what the experience of using technology should be about. Technology isn’t about specs. Of course specs are important, but only the truly nerdy people of the world really care about specs. Customers want a phone that is fast, easy to use, and stylish. When asked why Nokia didn’t put a quad-core processor in the Lumia 900, Elop replied that, “Quadruple core doesn’t quadruple the pleasure of the experience.” He’s completely right. When Apple launched the recent MacBook Airs, people scoffed at the specs and claimed that the notebook is still style over substance. But once you use an Apple product, the specs are completely immaterial, and all that matters is the amazing experience you have using the product. “Most of the time those extra cores aren’t even used and they’re just draining the battery,” Elop continued to explain as he talked about the important hardware improvements that significantly improve the user experience.

Nokia gets it. Apple gets it. But Google still hasn’t caught on yet. The majority of the world just wants technology to enhance their lives. That’s why Apple has been so successful with the Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad and probably a TV if they get around to it. On stage at CES, Elop reiterated how much attention Nokia is putting into their devices to make sure that the entire experience is the best it can be. It doesn’t matter how many cores your processor has, or if your screen can play 3D and if you have 5 cameras and a barometer. If none of your fancy additions work smoothly together to create something bigger than their individual parts, then the extra specs are just floating clouds of fluff that get in the way of having fun and enjoying your phone.

The Nokia Lumia 900 was unveiled today, and to be honest, it’s beautiful. Using a single piece of injection molded polycarbone, Nokia has made a phone that looks simple, yet strong enough to endure daily use; stylish, yet distinctive and recognizable without coming off as a gimmick. I know the first thing that you’re think is probably, “Yeah but it’s running Windows Phone, which is a piece of crap!” Our disdain for Microsoft dates back before the dawn of civilization, but we have to admit that sometimes they get things right.

The decision to use Windows Phone was gutsy on Nokia’s part, but it was absolutely vital for them to stand out as a company, and that’s what the platform offers them – identity. The problem with Android is that Google didn’t try to make anything different. They just saw what Apple was doing with apps and copied it. When Microsoft created their mobile operating system they strove to create something that was different than what Apple was doing and what Google had copied. On the Lumia 900 information isn’t accessed in indivudal apps, but is compartmentalized and distributed to different live tiles. You can look at individual contacts and see all your past interactions with them from Facebook, Twitter, text message, email, phone calls, all on the same screen rather than having to go to each individual app to check up on them. It’s a unique approach to mobile interfaces, and Microsoft deserves some credit for actually trying to make something that is uniquely theirs, just like Apple did, rather than copying something that someone else was doing, like Google did.

Uniqueness is something that Elop talked about repeatedly on stage. He said that their phones needed to look unique but inviting. He claimed the experience needs to be unique yet familiar. Creating a unique user experience through a device that is sleek and progressive seems to be Nokia’s goal, which is pretty similar to what Apple’s goal is too. When it comes to Android, it’s always hard to pinpoint the mission of their products.

People argue that they don’t want an iPhone because “everyone has one” and it’s no longer unique or cool. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In terms of smartphone marketshare, Android is the most popular operating system. More people use Android phones than iPhones or Nokia phones. There aren’t fifty carriers using bastardized versions of iOS, which gives Apple an unique opportunity to foster their community of followers and provide them with an experience that is fine-tuned to their needs. The same opportunity is available to Nokia, who has become the premier Windows Phone handset maker.

The similarities between Apple and Nokia are enjoyable. Nokia isn’t trying to rip off iOS, or design phones that are mirror images of the iPhone. They’re following the Apple philosophy by carving out an image of uniqueness that is completely focused on experiences and not gigahertz. This unity in vision of what technology should do for consumers is exactly why Apple and Nokia are perfect competitors for each other. We don’t want to see a battle between iOS and Android. That’s boring. They’re almost the same platforms with a few tweaks here and there. We want to see two great ideas collide head-on and may the best company win.

Great competitors strive to beat others with great characteristics. Like Steve Jobs said, “A-players want to play with other A-players.” Android? That’s a B-minus Player. iOS vs Android is like watching the 1996 Bulls vs the Jazz. Or Manny Pacquiao vs Anybody. People want to see great battles of worthy opponents. We want to see Ali vs Fraiser. Nadal vs Federer. UNC vs Duke. What we saw today from Nokia is that they deserve a title fight with Apple more than anyone, because they’re one of the few companies out there taking risks and striving to actually think different. When they were up against the ropes, Nokia decided to scrap their Symbian OS and dedicate their phones to Windows Phone. It was a bold move that many laughed at, but with the introduction of their “re-entry” North American smartphone, Nokia looks like they’re back in the game, and we’re excited to see how the Apple vs Nokia battle shapes out.