N8 Delayed: Is Nokia Too Big to Be Nimble?

Nokia’s (s nok) N8 touchscreen smartphone was expected to arrive in customer hands in September, but now the company says it plans to ship orders this month, with deliveries to customers delayed to October. Rumors of shipment delays began yesterday, with the following comment attributed to Nokia: “To ensure a great user experience, we have decided to hold the shipments for a few weeks to do some final amends.” Today, an official Nokia blog post clarifies by saying that N8 pre-orders were indeed targeted for September, but the company has advised those customers to expect their smartphone next month. While a number of factors could be at play, the N8 delay illustrates that managing expectations for a near-global audience is as big a challenge for Nokia as developing competitive products and services.

While no tech player is immune from product delays — customers still can’t order that white iPhone 4 (s aapl), for example — Nokia’s sheer size and breadth of product line complicates matters. The handset maker offers products in nearly 200 countries and I’ve simply lost count of  how many different phone models Nokia makes. Nokia’s global product offerings are both its biggest strength and its greatest weakness because of the massive effort it must take to coordinate hardware, software, services and logistics. For a product like the N8 that was shown off and introduced back in April, this challenge shows.

Indeed, when I spoke to Anssi Vanjoki — Nokia’s executive VP and head of Mobile Solutions — at the Nokia World event last week, he touched upon such challenges, possibly inadvertently. “The Nokia N8 is the dream I realized four years ago,” he told me. The handset might indeed be the best smartphone on the planet, but I circled back to the timeframe Vanjoki mentioned, and asked if “four years” sounded like a problem to him. He candidly admitted that the company often moves too slowly, and vaguely alluded to internal logistics and organizational politics as issues, but provided no further details.

Like its competitors in the mobile handset market, Nokia faces many of the same challenges: developing and maturing the platform, managing component shortages, and creating a compelling ecosystem. By scaling up the company and product offerings, however, Nokia adds layers of organizational complexities that stack the odds against its success. Put another way: Managing the many moving parts at Nokia slows it down and makes it less likely that one cohesive strategy will be achieved. Forgetting its vast array of hardware choices, you can simply look at the many current software platforms Nokia is trying to manage: S40, Symbian S60, Symbian^3, and soon, MeeGo.

The problem is that Nokia has been taking a backseat to smartphones running Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android (s goog) and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry (s rimm) platforms for the past two to three years, so the company faces what appears to be a “no-win” situation when it comes to the N8 delay. It can either rush a nearly-complete product to market, or it can make the product right and not meet delivery expectations. In a market where product cycles are now often measured in months, not years, that’s a bigger problem than producing smartphones that don’t quite measure up to the competition.

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