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Year one: The good and bad of Nokia's return to smartphones
Exactly one year ago, HMD Global gained the rights to make and sell smartphones under the Nokia brand.
The Finnish company made great progress in its first year of business. It got what was once the most respected brand name in the industry back on the map and released six Android smartphones. It also made many mistakes.
In an interview with Bloomberg last December, former CEO Arto Nummela said that HMD “will be extremely true to the Nokia brand.” Did the company keep its promise? Let’s take a look.
HMD has stayed true to the Nokia brand when it comes to user-friendliness. It made a smart move by avoiding gimmicky smartphone software features and deciding to stick to the basics. Thus, Nokia-branded handsets are some of the few running stock Android.
Smartphones with vanilla Android have many advantages that make them popular. They are one of the first to get major OS upgrades. They also offer a simple, fast, and user-friendly interface, and don’t come with a ton of pre-installed apps (bloatware) most users will likely never use.
HMD has also promised to upgrade all of its smartphones to Android Oreo, as well as rolling out monthly security updates.
Announcing the Nokia 3310 was also a smart move. The device doesn’t have exciting specs, features, or design. It’s a “dumb” phone that’s good for making calls, sending texts, and playing Snake which was all the rage back in the day. But it is a marketing goldmine.
Bringing the 3310 back from the dead was a genius move that put Nokia back on the map.
The original Nokia 3310 was one of the best smartphones of its time and is the star of countless memes that will give you a good laugh. Reviving it was a genius move which put Nokia back on the map, as the company received a ton of free publicity from big and small publications across the globe.
The 3310 reveal also sparked consumer interest, which helped HMD bring its other smartphones to a lot of countries in a short period of time. Although the company has been in business for only a year, its handsets are on sale in China, India, the US, and the majority of European markets.
The company has also invested a lot of money into marketing, in big markets and smaller ones in Europe. This helped it ink deals with carriers throughout the old continent, something many Chinese smartphone makers have been trying to do for years without luck.
The majority of people buy phones on contracts, so partnering with carriers is a huge deal. It brings Nokia devices in front of more consumers and has a big impact on sales.
HMD also made a smart move by releasing a smartphone in each category. There’s the already mentioned 3310 feature phone, the budget-friendly Nokia 2 and 3, mid-range Nokia 5, 6, and 7, and the flagship Nokia 8. The company has all the bases covered with its lineup, giving consumers a choice at different price points. Its smartphones also feature fantastic build quality, which has always been synonymous with the Nokia brand.
Having a few low-end and mid-range devices in its lineup is also a great way to grab consumers’ interest in developing markets, where purchasing power is lower than in the West. Offering handsets that won’t break the bank under a strong and respected brand could very easily make HMD a force to be reckoned with in emerging markets.
One of the biggest mistakes HMD has made so far is playing it safe in its designs. Its smartphones aren’t ugly, but they sure aren’t sexy either. They already look dated, especially compared to gorgeous rivals like the Galaxy S8, LG V30, and Honor 9.
Nokia smartphones— even the flagship Nokia 8— don’t have an X factor; a killer feature or two that would make them stand out. To give you a few examples, the Galaxy S8 sports a curved display, Note 8 comes with the S Pen, OnePlus 5T has Dash Charge, Moto Z2 Force features a modular design, and the HTC U11 offers Edge Sense, as do its mid-range siblings.
HMD is trying to make high-end Nokia handsets stand out by equipping them with Zeiss optics. It’s also highlighting the “Bothie” feature, which lets you use front and back cameras simultaneously for split-screen photos and videos. However, these alone aren’t strong enough unique selling propositions to instantly make Nokia smartphones a hit among consumers.
The truth is Nokia smartphones just have the name and HMD is hoping it will be enough to make them compete for your attention and money. The company is trying to cash in on the brand and its plan has been working so far. We likely wouldn’t care about Nokia smartphones without the Nokia name.
This won’t go on forever. HMD has to start innovating and taking risks. If not, the brand will lose its appeal, as it did years back when the company refused to adopt Android and partnered with Microsoft. Making generic Android phones might be a safe bet to start, but it’s not a long-term strategy.
HMD made a mistake by not bringing the flagship Nokia 8 to the US.
HMD also made a big mistake by not focusing more on the US, one of the most important markets for smartphone manufacturers. Sure, it released the Nokia 6 stateside, soon to be followed by the entry-level Nokia 2, but it doesn’t plan on offering its flagship Nokia 8. This is a big no-no because the high-end market is where the money is. Flagships also give companies more press and get people talking.
Speaking of flagships, Nokia is still missing a device that would go head to head with the Galaxy Note 8, LG V30, OnePlus 5T… The Nokia 8 might offer top-of-the-line specs but it also has a small display for a flagship, at 5.3-inches. Not to mention those large, unattractive bezels. If HMD really wants to compete, it needs a real flagship Nokia handset.
HMD needs a premium-looking phone that packs the latest hardware, offers a near bezel-less design, and sports a large 18:9 screen between 5.8 and 6.2 inches. We’ll likely see it sooner or later, but if HMD was serious about making a splash it would’ve already been come out. Without it, the hype around Nokia may start winding down, making it even harder for HMD to lure consumers away from the competition.
Has HMD stayed true to the Nokia brand?
The answer is yes and no. The company’s smartphones stick to the basics. They’re well-built and feature a pure Android experience, but they’re missing something. I’ve owned many Nokia devices over the years and every one of them felt like it was ahead of the competition. They were gorgeous and packed features that made them unique. You don’t get that with the new Nokia smartphones.
It might not be a huge deal in the entry-level and mid-range sections, but it definitely comes into play in the high-end market. People who buy flagships rarely make impulse purchases. They know their options and what’s unique about each one. The brand alone won’t be enough for HMD to capture the attention of power users. It needs something more.
Things could change. HMD obviously has more devices in the pipeline, with one of them being the Nokia 9 (see image below). Rumor has it the device will come with a 5.5-inch QHD curved display, a bezel-less design, and top-of-the-line specs. On paper, it looks like a much better competitor to the Galaxy S8, LG G6, and similar devices than the Nokia 8. But by the time it arrives the next generation of flagships will be available, so HMD might still be playing catch up.
The company has made some mistakes in its first year of business, but it also made a lot of fantastic moves. It’s received a lot of attention in the last 12 months, but HMD will have to take its game to the next level in 2018 if it wants to return the Nokia brand to its former glory.
That’s my take, what’s yours? Let me know in the comments.