The launch of the latest Nokia Lumia smartphones could revive Nokia’s presence across Asia and China in particular, but will they come quickly enough? Both the Lumia 710 and 800 Windows phones are scheduled to be available in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and India before the end of 2011, and Nokia will no doubt be working hard to avoid the delays which plagued the launch of too many previous models. However, China will have to wait until “the first half of 2012″ before it sees the much-admired fruits of Nokia’s partnership with Microsoft. In the meantime it seems likely that “unofficial” supplies could filter across to the mainland, which may help to sustain interest until the official launch, although only China Unicom’s network is compatible with the 3G technology currently used in these Lumia models.
It could be down to the diverse 3G standards used by China’s three mobile operators: W-CDMA (the technology used most widely throughout the world) is deployed by China Unicom, CDMA2000 (less widely used, but most notably in North America) is deployed by China Telecom and TD-SCDMA (a standard developed in and currently limited to China) is used by the largest operator, China Mobile. Back in August Colin Giles, Global Head of Sales at Nokia, and formerly Director of Marketing for Asia Pacific and Senior Vice President for Greater China, announced that Nokia will be launching TD-SCDMA compatible Windows Phone 7 handsets in China. So it seems likely the delay is to allow Nokia time to engineer versions of the Lumia phones which can operate on the CDMA2000 and TD-SCDMA standards, allowing Nokia to launch its new smartphones with all three of China’s mobile operators.
With Nokia struggling to maintain its market position in Asia and across the world, clearly an earlier launch in China would have been preferable. However, this strategy does give Nokia one potential advantage against the iPhone: Apple doesn’t have a TD-SCDMA version either and it looks unlikely it ever will. That hasn’t stopped China Mobile from selling the iPhone through a network of partners, acquiring around 10 million iPhone users so far. The iPhone can use China Mobile’s 2.5G network for voice calls and text messaging, but users are limited to wifi for high speed data services. To promote this growth in high value customers, China Mobile is offering rebates in the form of gift cards to customers who buy an iPhone through one of its partners and sign up to a 2g voice and wifi package. In an increasingly competitive market, this “subsidy” is unlikely to be an attractive long term solution for the operator to retain high value customers, and it’s not a good solution for customers who want to use their apps wherever they go. However, many customers prefer these limitations to the unreliable coverage of Apple’s official iPhone partner, China Unicom (although the operator is now working hard to improve its service). So if Nokia is able to offer versions of the Lumia smartphones that work on the 3G network of China’s largest operator, China Mobile, that could be a win-win for both Nokia and the operator. Nokia has been building TD-SCDMA feature phones for several years, so it has the expertise to solve the hardware problems. Hopefully its close relationship with Microsoft will ensure a smooth integration of these radios with the Windows software as well. Once again though, timing is critical: 2012 sees the end of Apple’s exclusive 3-year deal with China Unicom and is also likely to see the launch of the iPhone 5, which just might support the 4G technology (TD-LTE) that China Mobile is currently building, although recent reports suggest that Apple and China Mobile have failed to agree a deal, as the operator wants a cut of Apple’s app revenues as well. So Nokia needs to exploit this opportunity quickly whilst also lining up its 4G Windows Mobile phones for the next round in the battle. And that means also pushing Microsoft for better 4G LTE support in the Windows Phone 7 operating system.
And what of the other major competitor in Nokia’s smartphone war, Android? Nokia is being squeezed on all sides here, from both lower cost local brand phones and huge global players like Samsung and HTC. With Android smartphones available for as little as 1,000 Yuan (around USD160) in China, it seems likely the cheapest Lumia model will come in at around twice that price. However both Microsoft and Nokia expect that cost to fall as cheaper and more powerful processing chipsets and cheap WVGA (typically 800 x 480) screens reduce the cost of a phone capable of supporting the complexity and power of Windows Phone 7. Add to that Nokia’s excellence in hardware engineering and phone design, and the relatively straightforward integration of Windows Phone 7 with the Windows desktop which is particularly prevalent across Asia, and Nokia may be in with a chance of arresting its recent steep decline in the smartphone sector. These new Windows phones could do particularly well with customers who have yet to make the jump to a smartphone (ie they don’t already have an investment in apps, loyalty and learning how to use a particular smartphone OS effectively). Our guess is that Nokia is hoping the Chinese market for these premium smartphone products won’t accelerate too quickly, leaving it behind.
Written by Robert Filkins, Managing Consultant, Coleago Consulting