Nokia: Android fragmentation helps us

Chris Weber, the newly appointed head of Nokia (s NOK) North America is confident that his company, along with his former employer, Microsoft(s MSFT), has what it takes to compete with the mobile industry’s glimmer twins, Apple (s APPL) and Google (s GOOG). Weber admitted that while it will be a hard battle, Nokia-Microsoft could take advantage of the fragmentation in the Google Android ecosystem.

Weber, who worked with Microsoft for about 16 years (and left in Sept. 2010), is a believer in Nokia CEO Stephen Elop and joined the Finnish cell phone maker in December after Elop took over as the chief executive. I remain extremely skeptical of Nokia and its chances. and wasn’t shy about sharing my opinions with Weber. Weber, of course, is more optimistic, though he candidly admitted that the company clearly has a couple of challenging quarters ahead.

I would say so. If its current sales numbers are any indication, then Nokia’s on-the-fly reinvention is like Wile E. Coyote racing off the cliff in pursuit of Road Runner, and flapping hard before going splat. If there continues to be a global economic slowdown, then Nokia would find itself in a pretty bad place much sooner than the company can handle.

Nokia doesn’t plan to introduce a Windows Phone 7-based device until later this year, and it will be 2012 before the company can introduce the devices in volume. That long, risky transition gives another six to nine months for Android and iOS to essentially suck up market share. The company will introduce a portfolio of products and form factors in different price ranges, Weber said, arguing that it was how the company was going to win over customers.

We are different

“We have a differentiated product, and it is a differentiated consumer experience,” he argued. “The challenge is to break through to the consumer.” You don’t say! Weber argued that the Windows Phone 7-based devices will have seamless context without needing apps and it would use voice-based inputs/outputs in a clever sort of way – and that’s what makes it different from Android and Apple.

“Static apps and icons are an outdated model,” he said. Of course, you wouldn’t know that if you took a look at Apple’s recent earnings or Google’s claims that over 600,000 Android phones are being activated every day.

I wonder if Nokia is whistling in the wind. Thanks first to Apple’s iPhone and then Google’s Android-based phones, consumers have embraced the touch-based, app-style, interaction model. Microsoft wants us to learn yet another mobile behavior – not an easy task. Weber believes the company is going for first-time smartphone buyers and has an opportunity there.

The third option

Weber wasn’t coy about his opinion of Android and argued that fragmentation is going to be a big issue for Google. “As they try to address it, they will find it tough to retain what makes it (Android) attractive,” he added. “Fragmentation in Android is going to end in a poor consumer experience and that’s what we can take advantage of and we can give a better experience for first time smartphone buyers.”

The company, along with Microsoft, is willing to spend a lot of money to get apps and developers on the Windows Phone 7 platform. Will that be enough? Weber argues that mobile phone companies want a third option to Android and Apple, suggesting WP7 has a chance to be a viable third option.  Yeah sure – this from a company that has no market share and brand presence in the U.S., but waited years to cease Symbian and S40 device sales here.

Elsewhere in the world, Nokia might be better off, but they need to hurry, because Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei, in addition to biggies like Samsung, are starting to eat into their market share. Weber’s optimism doesn’t factor in that Research In Motion (s RIMM) and Hewlett-Packard (s Hpq) are also in the running for the third spot.

Having followed Nokia from the day when they introduced their first GSM mobile phone, I cringed at the mention of them settling for being the third option. But I also don’t want the company to fade away into obscurity. After all, like many of us, Nokia was our gateway to the mobile web, and that should (and it does) count for something.