Nokia has desperately tried to create a product that excites both consumers and shareholders. But so far, the struggling Finnish device maker has failed to do so: The beautiful Lumia 900 smartphone barely moved the needle, and even after Wednesday’s much-anticipated unveiling of the Lumia 920, Nokia’s share price tumbled more than 10%.
“We’re looking at the tablet space. It’s a growing category. It’s a natural companion to smartphones.”
So perhaps now is exactly when Nokia needs to start thinking bigger. Specifically, to start thinking about tablets. Nokia is in need of a game changer. The company, which once owned a massive mobile market share, has seen its market cap all but disappear over the past decade largely thanks to Apple and Google. As nearly all of its competitors–even its software partner Microsoft–dive headfirst into the tablet game, how long can Nokia afford to wait on the sidelines? “We have not announced any plans to introduce a tablet product on Windows or any other platform,” Stephen Elop, Nokia’s CEO, said yesterday at a company event in New York City. “But what is quite clear is that the digital experience that people expect today is one that spans multiple different environments: the phone, the tablet, the PC… Certainly, with Nokia’s strength in mobility, this is an area we’re looking at very closely, and hope to be able to talk more broadly soon about what our perspective is on how to approach that opportunity. It’s a real opportunity.”
Elop’s comments, vague and indecisive, are common for Nokia executives, who seem intent on squashing rumors and downplaying expectations, while not discounting the possibility of a Nokia tablet. As Jo Harlow, executive VP of Nokia’s smart devices, told me recently, “We’re looking at the tablet space. It’s a growing category. It’s a natural companion to smartphones. And that’s something that we’re following very closely.”
Even Marko Ahtisaari, executive vice president of design at Nokia, is mum on the company’s intentions. Though many media outlets reported that Ahtisaari had confessed to be working on a tablet for Nokia, Ahtisaari denies that’s what he had said. “The reason I paused for a moment is because I’m not on record but misquoted in Finland in an interview where I said that I spent over half of my time on products that are not–well, that are products that people wouldn’t think are phones,” Ahtisaari explains after a beat. “That’s what I said. But the way the news was picked up was that I spend half of my time working on a Windows 8 tablet. Which is not what I said, but I guess that’s what someone wanted to hear. So that was the news of the day.”
Asked to clarify what he meant by that comment, Ahtisaari would only say, with a telling grin, “I meant exactly what I said.”
Of course, it’s quite possible that Nokia’s tablet plans have been complicated by its relationship with Microsoft, which is slated to release its own tablet, the Microsoft Surface, in the coming months. Microsoft’s entry to the space has upset many of its hardware partners, which are now in the uncomfortable position of having to compete with their once-neutral software provider. In his comments on stage Wednesday, Elop pointedly said that the company has not announced plans for a tablet on “Windows or any other platform,” even though he was only asked whether the company had plans for a Windows-based device. Ahtisaari, too, during our recent conversation seemed to have made a point of specifying that he didn’t say he was “working on a Windows 8 tablet.”
Are these subtle hints that an Android-based product is just as likely as a Windows-based tablet?
Unsurprisingly, like Nokia’s tablet plans, company executives are just as diplomatic about discussing its partner’s hardware entry. When asked about his thoughts on the Microsoft Surface and whether Nokia could soon be competing with its partner in hardware, Ahtisaari would only say, “I think it generally builds momentum…momentum overall. Let’s go.”
Harlow echoed Ahtisaari’s sentiment that the Surface would “bring attention” to the Windows platform.
However, she did offer some insight into the extent at which Microsoft could meddle with hardware before it becomes problematic and potentially disruptive for its OEM partners. “They’ve announced two devices. It’s not like they’ve announced five, six, or seven devices that they’re going to do,” Harlow says. ” I guess my point is that with Microsoft’s business model, they depend on a large number of OEMs across laptops, desktops, and so forth. Two devices I don’t think represents any kind of major threat to the ecosystem.”
Beyond that, though, who knows?