10 Million Reasons the Nokia N8 is Destined for AT&T

Nokia (s nok) today announced it is partnering with AT&T (s t) in, a developer contest targeted at the North America region, and plans to award $10 million to the winners that create the top mobile applications. Developers have until the end of January to submit their apps for Nokia’s new Symbian^3 platform which supports development from Nokia’s Qt framework, Web Run-Time plug-in or Java. The prize pool will be split among 51 winners in 3 categories and the bulk of the two grand prizes are in the form of Nokia marketing dollars to help promote the top apps in the Nokia’s Ovi store. The contest details may have tipped Nokia’s hand: it looks like the new Nokia N8 could be offered by AT&T.

The contest is arguably one of Nokia’s largest efforts to attract attention the U.S. market, a place where smartphone adoption is quickly rising and yet Nokia has a limited presence. Perhaps the largest reason why Nokia is on the outside looking in at the U.S. is the lack of carrier partnerships: very few Nokia smartphones are subsidized and offered by U.S. carriers.

Indeed, Colin Gibbs provides several examples of how carriers can hold the keys to the castle (subscription required) in a recent GigaOM Pro thought piece. Without carrier subsidies and marketing dollars to help push products, Nokia hasn’t really had a chance to compete. But as my podcast colleague Matt Miller notes at Nokia Experts, this contest may be a foot in the door to the U.S. market for Nokia.

Evidence of this is on the Rules page where the details state, “Qualifying apps must be designed, developed, fully compatible with, and published for, the Nokia N8…” Wow, doesn’t get much clearer than that, does it? I can’t imagine that Nokia is just counting on those of us who will be buying SIM-unlocked N8s and the evidence is mounting that AT&T will be picking up the N8.

Nokia is running this contest for two main reasons. First, it’s continuing to drum up support from developers for the Symbian^3 platform. Current developers building apps for Nokia devices are already happy with the programming tools, but Nokia wants to catch the eye of app makers building for Apple’s iOS (s aapl) and Google’s Android (s goog) devices. Second, the Nokia N8 is arguably the company’s flagship smartphone so the company is wisely putting some marketing muscle and money behind it. Yes, Nokia announced three other Symbian^3 handsets at Nokia World last week, but the N8 was introduced back in April as Nokia’s “fight back” phone to showcase an improved Symbian^3 platform.

So how does AT&T fit in with the Calling All Innovators contest, aside from assisting with the application judging? Nokia desperately needs a carrier partner if it wants a successful smartphone in the U.S. and AT&T will soon need some new hot handsets to counteract the likelihood that it will lose it’s iPhone exclusivity. However, the U.S. market doesn’t generally support the unsubsidized, full-price model found outside of the U.S. so at $549, the N8 won’t attract big sales numbers.

A deal with AT&T that subsidizes the phone for $199 or so changes the situation, however, and further builds AT&T’s smartphone lineup, which may also be getting the INQ/Facebook phone detailed by Om. Such a carrier deal to bring the N8 to the U.S. would give AT&T customers yet another platform choice, and could give AT&T a competitive advantage long after the iPhone exclusivity is over.

It’s worth noting that Nokia wisely included support for five mobile broadband data bands in the N8. That means every model of the N8 works around the world and in the U.S. with AT&T — or T-Mobile for that matter. I’m expecting a review unit of the N8 in the near future, but my brief hands on with the phone last week showed a vastly improved user interface over prior Nokia smartphones. The hardware specifications rival or exceed competing devices in many areas as well. If Nokia does indeed partner with AT&T to offer a subsidized N8 handset, I’d call it a huge win and a step towards growth in a market where Nokia is a relative unknown.