It's a long-shot, a crapshoot, and a Hail Mary all in one. That's what Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) is doing by ditching Symbian, its mostly ignored homegrown mobile-software platform, and replacing it with Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Windows Phone 7 later this month.
But does it have any other choice if it wants to stay in the high-end smartphone business -- or even the mobile-phone business at all, given the rate at which consumers are upgrading to smartphones?
Up to now, Nokia has produced good phones whose software was just not up to the quality of the hardware. With the Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iPhone and its iOS' must-have cachet, and the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android platform's exploding market share, Nokia has to do something to stop the hemorrhaging of its smartphone-customer numbers before it bleeds out.
The market's prognosis
Do something, investors have cried: This year, Nokia shares have fallen more than 40% on worries that the company would lose even more market share before the new phones could come out -- more even than it could possibly recapture.
Still, Nokia has a lot going for it. It makes about one-third of the world's mobile handsets, which it produces in 10 countries throughout Europe, Latin America, and Asia. This gives the company great flexibility when it comes to taking advantage of differing labor costs, component pricing, and currency fluctuations.
Nokia also has well-established distribution pathways around the world, including China and India. The latter two countries are especially noteworthy, as the company holds 50% of the market where consumers can afford only the least expensive phones. This could prove to be an important advantage as buyers move up the handset ladder and stay loyal to the Nokia brand -- given that there's a desirable smartphone waiting at the top.
A light -- or a train -- at the end of the tunnel?
In the meantime, there have been faint whisperings of optimism from some analysts, most notably those from Nomura, who have upgraded Nokia to "neutral" from "reduce." Not a wholehearted endorsement by any means, but it does reflect a slight improvement in their estimates of Nokia's upcoming third-quarter earnings: that would be breaking even, as opposed to their earlier calculation of a $0.02-per-share loss.
Will the Nokia/Windows duo perform like Batman and Robin, or will it turn out like Frank and Estelle Costanza, George's bickering parents from Seinfeld? The company and its investors are betting the farm on the former. It's a bet I'm not willing to take, but I'm necessarily not betting against it, either.
If you have any interest in this outcome -- as I'm sure you do if you're reading this article -- then I suggest placing Nokia on My Watchlist. It's easy, free, and non-fattening.