With the BlackBerry off the endangered-species list and Microsoft homing in on the market for phones that double as e-mail devices, Nokia is on the prowl for its own corporate-customer base. Keen to learn from its experience with the clamshell mobile phone, whose extraordinary appeal it failed utterly to predict, Nokia doesn’t want to miss out on the opportunity embodied in mobile e-mail.
“We’ve very serious about getting into this business. We believe the e-mail market really hasn’t gone anywhere yet,” said Gerald Bruen, Nokia’s director of enterprise solutions, in an interview Thursday with MarketWatch.
Of the 650 million corporate e-mail in-boxes that exist globally, only 6% to 7% are available via mobile devices, Bruen said.
“That’s a huge opportunity right there,” he said, adding that he believes that the high cost charged by Nokia’s competitors for such services is largely to blame for the segment’s stunted growth.
BlackBerry maker Research In Motion leads the mobile-email software market with more than 4.3 million subscribers. Microsoft has a few hundred thousand users.
Nokia’s plan to bag the corporate customer is two-pronged: new devices and new mobile solutions. Devices represent 60% to 80% of revenue for the enterprise-solutions division.
That division has struggled of late, with its operating loss widening to 136 million euros ($162 million) in the fourth quarter from 44 million euros as sales in the period were halved by weak demand for some products.
In contrast, Nokia, still the world’s largest handset maker, has excelled at selling lower-priced and lower-margin handsets to consumers, particularly in developing markets such as China and India. Unfortunately for the company, it has failed to replicate this success in the higher-end segment, where it has recently lost share to rivals such as Motorola and its super-slim Razr phones.
So the time had clearly come for a device makeover at the top end when Nokia last October unveiled the E61 model. The mobile phone, which features a keyboard below the screen, is closer in shape and appearance to some BlackBerry models and Palm’s Treo than to any other in Nokia’s range.
Some analysts, however, are cautious about its allure.
“It is fine, but it’s two years too late to the market,” said David McQueen, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media.
Geoff Blaber of global market-research firm IDC was more optimistic, saying he believes the E61 is a step in the right direction.
The E61 is one of three phones forming Nokia’s E series, which is meant to give enterprise customers a number of options.
“We need to give them choice because business users have different tastes,” said Bruen. “Some of the models have cameras. Others don’t appeal to firms where there’s a security issue.”
Alongside the E61, Nokia launched the E70, with a keyboard that unfolds on each side of the screen, and the E60.
IDC’s Blaber called the devices “compelling” and agreed they would help the vendor cater to a wider range of tastes in the enterprise market.
The second part of Nokia’s strategy to capture the business user involves making its phones easier to use and compatible with other operating systems.
And that’s where the phone maker’s approach has changed.
“We want to be platform-agnostic,” said Bruen, a key phrase signifying that any service or software platform will be welcome to operate on a Nokia mobile device.
Toward that end, Nokia bought Intellisync, a provider of platform-independent wireless messaging and file sharing, for $430 million in November. It’s being integrated with Nokia’s current package of services in a process expected to take six to eight weeks.
For years, analysts had criticized Nokia for its attachment to Symbian, which is a proprietary mobile-operating system that wasn’t always compatible with other systems. Nokia is a major shareholder in Symbian and is the dominant supplier of Symbian handsets.
“As an operating system, Symbian still has work to do to convince the IT crowd that it works for the enterprise customer and offers the adequate security,” said Blaber.
The IDC market analyst said Nokia needs services that are agnostic in terms of device and platform if it’s to entice users.
Informa’s McQueen said he shares the view: “Nokia should get off their high horse and bring to the market a device that will support a Microsoft operating system.”
Nokia may be trailing in the race for the hearts of business users, and their IT managers, but it wasn’t that way when it launched its Communicator messaging-and-phone device in 1996.
“You cannot exaggerate the awe factor of the Communicator and the buzz it created in the industry. It was a real breakthrough,” recalled Ben Woods, vice president for mobile devices at research firm Gartner.
In many ways, the original 9000 Communicator was the first “smart phone.” It could send and receive e-mail; surf the Web; store calendars, contact lists and other personal information; and, of course, make telephone calls.
Yet Nokia failed to upgrade the device quickly enough, and it remained a niche product, allowing the competition to catch up.
“The Communicator is a real iconic product for Nokia, but it’s a brick. They have persevered with it much longer than anyone else would have,” said Woods.
At the end of October 2005, Nokia had shipped about a million of its latest Communicator models, the 9500 and 9300, over their lifespans.
And the BlackBerry? Research In Motion shipped 1.3 million of them in the fourth quarter alone.