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Nokia CEO: We are not a 'me-too' device-maker

Nokia's path to developing an indelible identity? Make something different.

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop speaks with CNET October 2012
Earlier this year, CEO Stephen Elop spoke about Nokia's strategy with Lumia 920 sales. Josh Miller/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain--Sit Nokia CEO Stephen Elop down for a few moments, and one thing becomes immediately clear: Nokia is all about differentiating.

Ever since the beginning of the company's resurgence two years ago when it reshaped itself as a maker of Windows phones, Nokia has celebrated its difference, its European heritage, and even a level of quirkiness.

Today, Elop reinforced the message again and again as he addressed a small gathering of journalists at Mobile World Congress here.

Nokia Lumia designs are special, Elop says, since they're bold. The PureView imaging algorithms and camera stabilization springs are a top differentiator, along with wireless charging, Nokia's streaming-music service, and the highly sensitive screen technology that registers touch input made with your nail or a gloved hand.

At this rate, what element isn't an opportunity for Nokia's differentiation?

Yet, it isn't all hubris. Nokia designs are thoughtful and colorful, the company does develop a wide range of software to enhance the experience, and the 808 Pureview 41-megapixel camera shocker from a year ago does prove that Nokia's camera technology has the potential to push into new territory.

Sure, Android phone makers -- especially Samsung and HTC -- actively develop software and hardware innovations in audio, video, imaging, sharing, and the modern-day stylus, so Nokia is hardly alone.

What does stand out, however, is its CEO's concentration on his company bringing a unique position to the table. Nokia did that, Elop says, when it chose to become a Windows Phone house rather than yet another Android supplier.

Nokia is also willing to take calculated risks when it comes to tablets and wearable tech, Elop hinted.

"We want to build great mobile products," he said, when asked about Nokia's plan to create a tablet. "Do we see applicability in tablets? Sure...but we have to understand the use cases, differentiation, and design.

Elop added that users' and critics' early mixed response to Windows 8 OS "makes us want to study it a lot more closely."

Shift gears to wearable tech -- like watches and fitness monitors, the latter of which Elop used to own -- and Nokia's CEO really lights up.

"What they are is essentially a sensor collection," he said. "These devices are sensing the world around you, they're sensing you." The aggregation of information is interesting, Elop said, but if Nokia has a clearly defined plan for how his company will embrace the trend and deliver information in a meaningful way, he isn't sharing.

First, he said, Nokia will need to track how the emerging tech markets evolve. If Nokia does act, Elop said, "We need to stand for something that's clean and meaningful and differentiated."

And there's that word again: differentiate. It's a convenient, but also crucial, motto that blankets tablets and smartwatches and smartbelts or wherever the trend goes next.

In a connected space that's rapidly coalescing around a few focused brands with lots of money to invest, Nokia's only chance to make a mark is to veer away from Apple's iOS and Samsung's Android, and to create the best "different" that the company's coffers and engineers can muster.