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Can Nokia kick start Windows Phone?

Both Microsoft and Nokia need something to make an impact in today's smartphone market, but is what they need really each other?

commentary If you scour the world's tech news today, you'll find dozens of pundits posing this same question, but phrasing it in a slightly different way. Most are asking whether Nokia can "save" Windows Phone, and vice versa, but the way we see it, Windows Phone doesn't need to be saved; it just needs a jump-start.

(Credit: Nokia)

The launch of the Windows Phone Mango update (version 7.5) marked the first anniversary of the platform, nearly to the day. In this first year, Microsoft has struggled to make much of a dent in the barnstorming advance of Apple's iOS and Google's Android platform, claiming less than 2 per cent of smartphone market share in this time. Nokia's troubles have also been well documented, slipping from the top spot to being the third-largest smartphone manufacturer by sales at the end of Q2 2011.

There are several factors affecting the performance of both companies in this area. Microsoft has worked hard to deliver a range of important enhancements to the Windows Phone platform, but it has struggled to convince its OEM partners to deliver their best hardware to match it. When Windows Phone launched, Samsung, LG, HTC and Dell were queuing up to be a part of the festivities, with each releasing a handset or two for Christmas 2010. But there was no follow up. We published an article — "Best of Windows Phone, so far" — in November 2010, and, with the exception of the HTC HD7, the handsets in that list remain the only Windows Phone handsets available in Australia one year on. These phone makers have, of course, spent 2011 kicking goals with handsets built around the Android ecosystem.

Conveniently, Nokia's problems have been entirely software-related. Its Symbian platform, one of the oldest smartphone operating systems, failed to evolve fast enough to maintain the interest of consumers that was really built around the release of the Nokia N95 in 2007, arguably Nokia's last really ground-breaking effort. Revisions to Symbian since then have added complexity to the system while making it feel slow and more inflexible than Apple's and Google's systems, which were built from scratch with touchscreen devices in mind.

What both companies need seems to dove-tail nicely; Nokia needs software that feels fast and fresh, and Microsoft needs an OEM partner who doesn't treat its software as the red-headed stepchild next to Android.

Enter the Lumia 800 and the Lumia 710, Nokia's first Windows Phone handsets and the phones that Microsoft is happy for Nokia to call the "first real Windows Phones". Microsoft and Nokia will join forces beyond the creation of these devices to take them to market with a huge co-investment in marketing and advertising. Even if you don't buy a Nokia Windows Phone next year, chances are you will be very aware of its presence.

Nokia's approach to Windows Phone is dramatically different to HTC, Samsung and LG, as well. The slick black slates we saw in the Omnia 7 and Optimus 7Q will be superseded by punchy fluoros to better reflect the bold colour palette of the Windows Phone Metro UI. Nokia also brings turn-by-turn navigation into the mix, a must-have feature in a smartphone these days.

But, at the end of the day, it could all come down to price, and both Nokia and Microsoft appear to be committed to winning this battle, too. The Lumia 710, in particular, could prove to be excellent value if its estimated €270 price tag translates fairly in Australian dollars. Finding itself on a AU$29-per-month contract at launch would make for an extremely attractive alternative to some of the pricier Androids and the older iPhones still floating around in Australian phone stores.

Whether these factors prove to be the perfect storm for Microsoft and Nokia, only time will tell. The smartphone market is notoriously fickle, with manufacturers rising and sinking on the backs of their most recent releases, but we definitely think it's a huge step in the right direction.