Nokia today sold HERE Maps to a consortium of German auto makers. And while it gains Nokia over $3 billion in cash, the real question is where they go from here.
For Nokia, the company has historically had three divisions: devices, networking, and maps. Maps is now decisively gone, though Nokia likely retains access to those maps with whatever it does in the future (much as Microsoft did when Bing Maps was dissolved and then reassembled).
That leaves devices, and networking. With networking, Nokia has been in a period of rebuilding – Nokia Siemens is now Nokia Networks and is now controlled by Nokia. It’s clear Nokia is intent on keeping this line of business and maintaining its position inside the industry selling tower and network infrastructure gear.
So devices is the interesting bit. There’s really two ways Nokia can go.
Path 1 – The Alcatel Way
This is really the not-so-interesting way. Alcatel became a network-focused, infrastructure company. But what are all these Alcatel phones you see floating around? Rebadges. Alcatel phones sold today are rebadges of TCL Communications.
It appears they may be on borrowed time, too. TCL has started referring to devices as “Alcatel OneTouch” phones, inferring that they may drop the Alcatel brand and rely on OneTouch going forward. I can’t blame them… it’s not like I haven’t transacted a name change in the past, either.
But this is the easy way out. It’s not interesting.
Nokia ships one tablet today, the N1. It’s not largely Nokia’s design, but an ODM built by Foxconn using a reference Intel Moorsefield platform. It’s one advance, USB Type-C, is innovative, but builds on an existing reference design. In fact, Foxconn is seemingly entirely handling the sales process – hence why the N1 is only available for sale in China and Taiwan.
So this is where Nokia can go. They could take existing reference designs, slap the Nokia label on them, and sell them to people who identify with the Nokia brand. Boring. And hard to profit in the long run.
Path 2 – Innovate and Fight
Nokia’s sales agreements with Microsoft do allow them to re-enter the mobile phone business, starting next year. The company has maintained its own design teams and skeleton staff. Even some from MeeGo derelict Jolla have reportedly defected back to Nokia.
Nokia now has billions of dollars, literally, which it could use to re-enter this market with true innovation. Freed from the likes of Steven Elop, Nokia has enough funds to maintain operating system and device autonomy. From reskinning Android to building an entire mobile ecosystem, Nokia can do what it wants really.
Handing money back to shareholders is easy. But Nokia is a company that has been battered and beaten down after years of success – caught off-guard by the rise of both iOS and Android. It is a far different company from the one that created Symbian, then tried to open-source it, and then built Maemo, and later MeeGo from the ground up.
If Nokia goes down this path, it will need to rebuild infrastructure. It should call where it came calling from, Microsoft. If Nokia goes down this path, it should work with Microsoft to reacquire the thousands of employees and facilities that used to work for Nokia. Microsoft has made clear they intend to cut in this area heavily. Those people understand the protocols, and would ease Microsoft’s bloodletting to offer transfers back to where they once came.
And for Microsoft, the move could create something it badly needs in the device field – goodwill. With Microsoft committed to a premium device strategy going forward, it might want a Nokia device team that is full of employees that favor OneDrive over Dropbox.
Then again, with all the near-misses that Nokia has had in its past (not being able to buy a Nokia N950 still stings), there’s always something nice about starting with a clean slate. Focusing on quality, affordable, powerful Android phones (smaller than five-inches, please) is probably the best route to take regardless.