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Nokia’s New CEO: Challenges

by Jean-Louis Gassée

Here we are, back from last June’s Nokia science-fiction romp. The company has finally elected a new CEO to replace OPK, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo. 43-year-old Stephen Elop’s bona fides are in order: As President of Microsoft’s Business Division (since January 2008) he was in charge of the Microsoft Office money machine and was part of the company’s “Leadership Team”. He was well-paid (the 2009 proxy pegged him at $4.8M, excluding longer-term items) and rumor placed him at the top of the short list to succeed Ballmer…

So what possessed Elop to take the Nokia job?

The answer must be that he’s been given the opportunity to make his mark. Having seen Microsoft from the inside, he must have realized that he was being groomed to be no more than a competent caretaker. He might even have decided he wouldn’t get, or wouldn’t want, the big prize, the CEO crown. So, I speculate, he went for the challenges of a turn-around situation.

The goal is clear: Restore Nokia to its former glory as the ne plus ultra of smartphones. But the path to this renaissance isn’t a straight shot—it’s an obstacle course.

Numbers

Mr. Elop’s most immediate challenge lies in Nokia’s financial performance. During the last three years of OPK’s tenure, Nokia lost 75% of its market cap, plunging from $40/sh in 2007 (the year the iPhone came out) to less than $10 today, although with a nice 2% uptick following the CEO announcement:

A more direct way to look at the numbers challenge is a single datum: Today, Nokia gets about €155 ($196) per smartphone, down from €190 last year. In the meantime, Apple gets more than $600 per iPhone. (See the June 2010 Financial Times story here.)

It gets worse when the total average number is considered, smartphones and not-so-smartphones together. That average now hovers around €60, which means Nokia sells very large numbers of low-end phones that yield very little profit. They’re in great danger of being squeezed by the incoming low-end Android horde.

But the numbers are a mere proxy for the bigger trial: The product itself, the smartphone.

Once the category leader, Nokia is now struggling to catch up with HTC, Motorola, Samsung and, of course, RIM/Blackberry and Apple. Pugnacious Nokia die-hards adhere to the company’s sisu, but the market has spoken—and it enunciates more distinctly every quarter. See this Business Insider chart:

Given today’s market turbulence, one can’t help but admire the charter’s ability to “see” as far as 2014—but the trend is obvious. Will upcoming products such as the N8 reverse it? Early reviews are mixed. For Nokia, the N8 isn’t likely to do what the Razr did for Motorola in 2003 or what the latest Droids are doing now. Motorola’s conversion to Android seems to have righted the ship and Sanjay Jah, the Co-CEO in charge of the company’s mobile business, is on his way to leading a self-sustaining entity, one that could finally be spun off as planned.

Software

Today, Nokia pushes devices that use older Symbian S60 stacks, newer Symbian^3 and Symbian^4 engines, as well as a mobile Linux derivative: Meego. Imagine the chuckles in the halls of Cupertino, Mountain View, and Palo Alto. Even with plenty of money and management/engineering talent, updating one software platform is a struggle. Ask Apple, Google, or HP, and the chuckles quickly become groans. Nokia thinks it can stay on the field when it’s playing the game in such a disorganized fashion? More

The Meaning of Droid

Literally, Droid is the new Motorola phone sold by Verizon and running Google’s latest Android 2.0 release. The early reviews are good and, cleverly, Google issued a new turn-by-turn navigation application for the platform, also well received, complete with voice control and street view pictures. The Droid starts selling later this week, on November 6th, I’ll get one ASAP and report.

Earlier Android-powered phones weren’t so great, I bought a T-Mobile G1 exactly one year ago and wasn’t overwhelmed. I then called it “just a first effort” and wrote: “It’s only a question of time before most phone makers and cellular carriers offer an Android model, 12 months or less.  Motorola, for example, is building a “social networking” Android phone.  This is precisely the beauty of the Android Open Source, it lets phone makers and carriers try different implementations, specialized models, vertical applications.”

One year later, we have a new situation, a real contender for the lead position in the exploding smartphone market. How will Android impact the rest of the industry: Motorola, Garmin, TomTom, Palm, Nokia, Microsoft, RIM and, of course, the iPhone’s meteoric rise?

For Apple, the short answer is: the iPhone will continue to apply the Macintosh method, that is controlling all or most of the user’s experience, with similar results: smaller market share, disproportionally larger profits than the separate hardware-software crowd. More on this later.

Let’s start with a tip of the hat to Motorola. Last year, I questioned Motorola’s strategy and even its survival. Their “mobile devices” business was going to be spun off, the smell perhaps, from the more dignified “institutional” business, selling communications gear to government and enterprise customers. Fortunately, the new co-CEO for the mobile devices business, Sanjay Jha, came in, saw the on-going wreckage, dumped everything, starting with the Windows Mobile anchor. Then, listening to his techies’ advice, Jha bet on Google’s Android. The result is the Droid smartphone, making Motorola a strong contender again. More