Nokia – a quirky Finnish company which started as a paper mill in 1865, and manufactured car tires and rubber boots into the 1990’s – helped to developed the modern cell phone industry, and has successfully stayed on top of the worldwide market ever since. However, thanks to emergent smartphone competitors like Google’s Android platform and the Apple iPhone, the tide is changing. Nokia has long since lost any footing in the US market and while their global cell phone empire still remains massive, its future is most likely uncertain. Beginning to feel the pains involved in its empire’s systemic decay, Nokia has entered a surprising new partnership with Microsoft. As part of this radical change the company has opted to jump off its ‘burning internal OS platforms‘ for Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7. Many of Nokia’s long term fans – who have long supported the company and its open attitude towards software development – view these new changes as an ultimate betrayal, and have started referring to Nokia’s new Microsoft-loving CEO as Darth Elope. Darth Elope hopes these radical changes will allow Nokia to maintain the remnants of its still mighty empire, and re-enter the cutthroat US market with a competitive edge. One country within the Nokian Empire where Elope’s recent changes might prove interesting is Egypt – a country which is also experiencing a rather dramatic regime change.
Egypt is easily one of the largest cellphone markets in the Middle East and Africa, and one of the many places outside of the United States where Nokia’s market dominance remains fully intact. Highlighting Egypt’s growing dependence on its cellphone networks, one of the Mubarak-led regime’s first moves to stop the protests was shutting them all off. This and many other attempts by the now stricken regime did not successfully stop the protesters from reaching their goals; mainly due to their impressive resillience and fortitude, and also thanks to companies like Google offering Egyptians the ability to start tweeting via landline telephone. I’m quite astonished at what the Egyptians have accomplished in the face of uncertainty, and ensuring a free and open internet that can’t be switched off at the government’s whim will be a priority for the new democratic government in Egypt. However, I’m practically sure that embracing the open software policy that Nokia has now swept under the rug will not matter much to Egyptians choosing new phones after the dust from the revolution has settled.
To be honest, most Egyptians honestly can’t afford to buy the latest greatest $550 smartphone. These people are going to stick the to much more affordable and famously reliable trusty old Nokia phones that propelled the company to the top of the cell phone market. The highlight of their user experience is going to remain the occasional bout of snake, and slowly thumbing out text messages on the numberpad (I’d love like to see someone typing an SMS in Arabic, I’m sure its quite a sight to behold). While Nokia is being challenged in this area by a slew of Chinese OEMs, their penchant for reliability will go a long way towards selling phones that many frugal Egyptians might even consider handing down as family heirlooms in 20-30 years.
As for the people who can easily afford to spend the average Egyptian’s yearly salary on a smartphone, the perceived hipness and luxury of the phone are going to far outweigh Richard Stallman’s approval rating for the device. Right now, Nokia’s Symbian devices have lost their coolness factor sitting next to the chic, sleek, and shiny iPhone. More and more of the world is embracing the Apple empire, and Nokia can’t get away with just selling loafs of bread while Apple is delivering the whole pie. Indicating that the company has been secretly planning this shocking move for a while, Nokia hasreleased prototypes of its new Windows devices. They honestly look great, their fun and colorful looks – much like those of the original iMac – and contrast greatly with the grim industrial looks of the iPhone. Their construction looks solid, and at least when it comes to design they offer consumers a desirable alternative. Windows Phone 7 – while young and admittedly missing essential features like copy/paste – is definitely quite good looking and easy to use, it is a stark contrast to the utilitarian and overly-complicated OS Microsoft was offering to phone makers just a year ago. That combination is exactly what Egypt’s nouveau riche are going to be looking for when shopping for a new phone.
As long as Nokia can get these phones onto the world market within a reasonable time frame, they have a reasonable chance of maintaining their dominance in countries like Egypt. While some people would of liked Nokia not to have been a turkey and gone the route of Google’s Android, I’m personally glad they didn’t. While I own a Samsung Galaxy S phone myself, I understand the need for competition in the cellphone market place. If Nokia can use this partnership to make smartphones that consumers actually want in the US, Egypt, and the rest of the world. Taking that into account, this move can only help to urge Google, Apple, and now HP into keeping their own cell phone platforms competitive.