Nokia’s Opening Salvo: 4 Smartphones and Plenty of Attitude

Nokia (s nok) today opened its annual Nokia World event in London to 3,000 participants with the introduction of four Symbian smartphones, claiming “Nokia is back!” More striking to me than the new N8, C6, C7 and E7 smartphones was the tone of Nokia’s message during the event kick-off. To call it defensive would be an understatement.

As I listened to Niklas Savander and Anssi Vanjoki speak for nearly an hour, it became clear that Nokia is tired of criticism and is now publicly grasping the challenge it faces. Several feisty jabs on stage were taken at Apple (s aapl) and Google (s goog). Savander made it a point to clarify numbers thrown around on device sales, saying Nokia sells 260,000 Symbian smartphones per day, or 30 times that of Google and Apple. After playing a soundbite of Apple’s Scott Forstall using Nokia’s “connecting people” tagline, Savander stated, “At Nokia, connecting people is more than just a feel-good tagline.”

With such a rich history of handset development, Nokia is certainly entitled to remind people that “it invented the smartphone,” as Savander adamantly pointed out. But repeating a mantra while competitors innovate quickly won’t solve the problem of Nokia’s profit squeeze. To combat the increased competition in the high-end market, Nokia is leaning on Symbian^3 and the new handsets introduced today. Oddly, Nokia called it the “new Symbian platform” and dropped all references to Symbian^3.

At his last Nokia World event, Vanjoki unveiled the new phones and offered a run-through of features. The N8, introduced earlier this year, is dubbed an “entertainment powerhouse” with the large touchscreen and 12-megapixel camera with its mechanical shutter. In the only actual device demonstration of the morning, Vanjoki impressed the crowd by using an N8 with HDMI cable to show a high-definition movie trailer on the large stage displays.

Nokia’s C6 and C7 appear to be general-purpose devices with baseline smartphone features, such as integrated social networking tools, location-based services, email and browsing. More intriguing to those wanting a hardware keyboard is the E7, with a 4-inch touchscreen that hides a full QWERTY keypad. Nokia is positioning the E7 as “the ultimate business smartphone.” It has rich support for Microsoft Exhange (s msft), but is also a device that blends work life with personal use.

Missing from the smartphone announcements was MeeGo, the platform Nokia plans to use for the highest-end mobile devices. Vanjoki briefly mentioned that no new MeeGo devices would be announced today, but we’ll hear more about the platform prior to the end of 2010. For now, Nokia is competing with Symbian^3.

Just after the keynote, I spent 15 minutes with Vanjoki and pressed him more about MeeGo. “The platform,” he told me, “is the next part of our strategy, following Symbian in the smartphone market.” According to Vanjoki, a reworked Symbian has “caught up” to other platforms, and MeeGo is the product platform that will catch competitors flat-footed. With bluster and confidence, Vanjoki described the next generation of portable computers powered by MeeGo, pointing out that I’ll want to carry a MeeGo device instead of the MacBook I lugged to Nokia World. If that isn’t some attitude, I don’t know what is.

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