f cell phone maker Nokia rolls out a tablet device one day, it will be late to a game where its competitors have a big head start.
Some observers think the company would be better off focusing all its resources on a successful smartphone portfolio first, then worry about a tablet down the road.
Nokia’s chief, Stephen Elop, seems to be looking for the middle ground.
Speaking at the All Things Digital conference, Elop said the company will bring a cutting-edge tablet to market when conditions are right.
“Our engineers are working very hard on something that will be different relative to everything else that’s going on in the market,” he said. “We could take advantage of Microsoft technology and software, and build a Windows-oriented tablet, or we could do things with some of the other software assets that we have.”
Unless Nokia has a hidden ace up its sleeve, “other software assets” refers to the Linux-based MeeGo operating system that Nokia’s been working on in various forms for six years, although MeeGo now sees developer help from Intel and Novell, among others.
Although MeeGo is incompatible with the more dominant Google Android platform, Elop has ruled out any Nokia Android devices, saying at the Qualcomm Uplinq conference on Thursday: “Our strategic premise at Nokia is that there is an opportunity for a third and competitive ecosystem to emerge, and that is the basis on which we are going forward.”
Investors haven’t responded in a way Elop might have liked. Coupled with warnings that second-quarter sales wouldn’t be too hot, there’s even talk of a collapse in Nokia stock.
The tablet boat is already well out to sea, and Nokia could find it difficult to hitch a ride once it is ready. Apple, Samsung, Motorola and others are already entering the second generation of their product lines
Still, there is a big market out there — and it is growing.
According to technology research and advisory firm Gartner, tablet sales could reach 295 million by 2015. Maybe that’s what Nokia is banking on, setting up a potential situation in the future akin to the early days of the PC, when pioneers IBM and Compaq ceded much of the market to later arrivals like Gateway just a few years later.
Analyst Derek Kerton of The Kerton Group said any worry of being late to the tablet market is overblown.
“Apple entered the mobile phone market about 20 years after its creation,” he said. “They seem to have done OK despite that slight delay.”
Kerton said Nokia would be better off focusing its attention on its smartphone portfolio for now.
Although Elop is a recent arrival at Nokia, the company’s hardware has a background in tablet computing.
The Nokia-driven Maemo operating system showed how Linux could be successfully adapted for mobile devices. Without it. Android would arguably be very different. The N series Internet tablets, beginning with the N770 in 2005, were eerily similar to the Apple iPhone that would arrive several years later, although they relied on stylus input and — until the N900 arrived in 2009 — lacked any cell phone circuitry.
Why isn’t Nokia building on this expertise?
“I had an N tablet,” Kerton said. “It was awful. A terrible UX [user interface] that only an engineer could love. Designed by committee, disjointed, complicated — I spent a few nights in a row until the wee hours tinkering, then gave mine away to someone I disliked.”
Kerton said Nokia should start fresh and occupy a market position not yet fully realized — true laptop-replacement tablets. As one of Microsoft’s biggest partners for Windows 8, Nokia is given “significant heft” in this regard, he said.
“Windows 8 with some kind of wireless USB docking system could be interesting. It could function as a desktop when docked, or just near its peripherals, while it could function as a tablet while mobile. Instead of just having a window on your work, cloud content, or apps, you could have full desktop contents with you on the go — no sync required,” Kerton said.
However, that idea also faces competition.
At the All Things Digital conference earlier this week, Microsoft’s hardware partners showed off various tablet devices running the full Windows 8 and even Microsoft Office, all using the same kind of ARM processor-based technology that Nokia traditionally excels in.
Nokia is going to have to produce something exceptional, Kerton said.
“The problem for Nokia is that the existing tablets and associated app stores cover a lot of ground. The iPad developer ecosystem is able to spot market opportunity and extend the devices to meet it. That doesn’t leave much for Nokia unless their hardware is significantly different,” he said.