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Nokia Pins Turnaround Hopes On Microsoft

Nokia's first smartphones running Microsoft's Windows Phone platform are expected to debut in London next week. Can the unlikely duo write the turnaround story they both so desperately need?
Nokia World, the Finnish phone maker's annual analyst and press event, kicks off in London on October 26. Nokia usually uses the event to tout past successes, as well as reveal its plans for the coming year. Nokia has launched some of its biggest devices, such as the N97 and the N95, in years past.

This year, the company has more than ever riding on what it announces at Nokia World.

Nokia is widely expected to reveal its first Windows Phone 7.5 Mango smartphones. Windows Phone software is not made by Nokia, but by Microsoft. The phones Nokia plans to announce next week will be some of the first it has ever introduced that don't run on a Nokia-made operating system.

Nokia's long-time smartphone platform of choice was Symbian. Before the iPhone, Symbian dominated the global smartphone marketshare with numbers reaching as high as 75%. Competition from Apple, Google, and Research In Motion chipped away at those numbers until they had surpassed them. Nokia's Symbian had fallen out of favor with developers and the buying public. Nokia needed to make a drastic change if it wanted to remain a relevant player in the market it helped define.

[ Check out the 7 Hottest Features In Windows Phone 7 Mango. ]

In February, Nokia announced that it would abandon Symbian (and, later, its other mobile platform efforts, such as MeeGo) in favor of Microsoft's nascent Windows Phone platform. It was a stunning move.

At the same time, Microsoft was just four months into the launch of Windows Phone 7, which was a complete re-write of its smartphone software. Despite the platform's visual appeal and robust feature set, it had not seen the initial success that Microsoft surely hoped it would be. CEO Steve Ballmer has said as much.

Microsoft had a few hardware partners signed up, but they were dipping their toes in slowly with a minimal number of handsets. Only five WP7 handset models were sold in the U.S., and they bore almost identical feature sets. Microsoft, which doesn't build its own smartphone hardware, needed to find an ally that would put its platform front and center. (HTC, LG, Samsung, and Dell all make Android-based smartphones in addition to their Windows Phone handsets.)

Now, six months after the Nokia-Microsoft marriage became public, we're about to see the fruit of this ambitious project.

Spy shots of supposed Nokia Windows Phone devices have been leaking across the Internet in recent weeks. Many of them look like warmed over Nokia designs with WP7 tossed into the mix. Hopefully Nokia will do more than cram Microsoft's code into its hardware.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal back in August, Marko Ahtisaari, Nokia's head designer, pointed at the N9 as an example of what to expect. The N9 is made from polycarbonate materials and has a curved glass screen. It may be overly simple looking, but the clean lines and use of colors make it an attractive handset in today's me-too sea of black-on-black super slabs.

"We will drive this trend toward reduction and more natural forms. Compare that to the black, grey, and metallic rounded-corner rectangles you are seeing in the market," said Ahtisaari. "The inherent color in the polycarbonate allows us to do color in an interesting way, and that will continue to be important as a simple symbol of choice.

It's not just the hardware that Nokia's going to have control over when designing WP7 handsets. Nokia plans to work on the user interface and apps, as well, because Nokia has taken WP7's mantra of interacting with people as the tenet behind its own WP7 philosophy.

It doesn't hurt that Microsoft is giving Nokia more leeway than other OEMs to make changes to the user interface and make it more "Nokian."

If Nokia's Windows Phone efforts don't find a foothold in the market, both it and Microsoft could be in serious trouble with respect to their mobile phone businesses.

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