At next week’s mobile trade show in Barcelona you can find a program that measures how high you can throw a Nokia smartphone, an apt metaphor for Nokia’s efforts to raise its game.
But gravity might not favor the world’s biggest maker of cellphones, as the focus of the $169 billion industry shifts to software and services, the “mindshare” that is lifting nimble competitors such as iPhone maker Apple and Google.
For the first time, Nokia has opted out of the Mobile World Congress this year, another trend set by Apple, which eschews industry get-togethers in favor of its own, carefully choreographed events.
Nokia will host some meetings nearby, but is reported not to be planning any new phone launches.
At the same time the fair will be flooded with new phones using Google’s Android platform.
The other big names in the industry, Microsoft, Samsung and Sony Ericsson, have also been struggling with the pace set by Apple and Google, ever since the first iPhone took the world by storm in mid-2007.
Nokia is seen among the best positioned to cope with the onslaught thanks to its own operating system, investments in services, and huge scale benefits in phone production, but Apple already makes more profit from phones than Nokia.
Trying to replicate Apple’s success in selling mobile software through its App Store, Nokia, Microsoft and others have opened their own online stores, but with little success.
“Everybody is struggling. There is a lot of hype, but there is not a lot of dollars,” said Dana Porter, VP for strategy at phone-billing and customer-management software maker Amdocs.
Google’s high-profile presence at the show with a keynote speech from chief executive Eric Schmidt will remind the industry just how quickly relationships and revenue sources that once seemed assured can change.
The Web search giant last month started to sell the Nexus One, a touchscreen smartphone it sells directly to consumers, bypassing the operators who normally control the sale of phones in Europe and the U.S.
Having seen the destruction Google has wrought in the media sphere to previously cozy relationships between publishers, advertisers and readers, the telecoms industry is nervous.
Google also said this week it planned to build a super-fast Internet network for up to half a million people in the U.S., a project that could loosen telecoms companies grip on Web access.
As well as potentially upsetting operators, Google’s open Android platform also presents a threat to makers of rival smartphone platforms, including Nokia and Microsoft.
The Nexus One, Google’s first own-brand device, is also the first concrete sign it is paying serious attention to hardware. Although Google has built considerable loyalty and a huge advertising business around its search engine and gmail services, these are free to consumers.
Apple, on the other hand, has persuaded more than 100 million consumers to hand over hundreds of dollars apiece for its iPods and iPhones.
Top hardware makers plan to roll out increasingly cheap smartphones in 2010 to battle the new rivals in the mass market.
“It seems that volume champions like Nokia and Samsung are opting to get down and dirty in 2010; we’ll likely see eye-poppingly cheap touch-screen devices this year,” said MKM Partners analyst Tero Kuittinen.
With average smartphone prices dropping sharply, the phones will reach a much wider audience, causing data traffic on operators’ networks to soar, especially as video sharing via mobile becomes more commonplace.
“This is a big challenge as it uses a huge amount of data bandwidth,” said Martin Garner, analyst at CCS Insight.
Top telecom equipment vendors — Ericsson, Nokia Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent and others — will all demonstrate and sell their next-generation LTE equipment at the show, trying to convince operators to choose them to upgrade their networks and handle the data crush.
But analysts say operators’ sales in mature markets are not growing fast enough to justify major investment.