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Where's the Nokia phone we're craving?

Nokia swan dives back into the phone market through startup HMD, but it steers clear of the premium category dominated by Apple and Samsung.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This is not the Nokia flagship phone you've been looking for.

Startup HMD, which owns the license to build Nokia phones, on Sunday launched a raft of handsets in a bid to once again be a leading light in the mobile world.

HMD will need to turn up the wattage. The highest end phone unveiled is the Nokia 6, a $229 mid-range device that isn't going to get anyone's blood pumping like a premium superphone. They get cheaper from there.

HMD CEO Arto Nummela said he wants Nokia to be a top player globally in the coming years, but it's clear the startup is taking baby steps. The strategy underscores the caution that any company must take when wading into the brutally competitive phone market.

So while gadget freaks and old-school fanboys will be disappointed that there's no high-end phone for them, it's all part of HMD's strategy to get the Nokia experience into the hands of as many people as possible. What better way to do it than with phones that people can actually afford?

It's a sensible, measured move on the part of HMD, said Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight. Many of the people buying one of the new Nokia phones will be looking for something in the mid-range price bracket, "but will feel more comfortable with a phone with a brand they recognize," rather than one of the numerous less well-known brands on the market.

Stepping up

But really, where is the Nokia challenger to take on the iPhone 7 or topple the Galaxy S7?

HMD Chief Product Officer Juho Sarvikas is coy about a high-end phone joining the Nokia lineup any time soon. "This is just the first wave of our global devices," he said in an interview on Saturday. "The idea is to start from here."

The startup believes it will have the most impact on the mid- and low-range market, where it hopes to stand out with quality and its name.

"The uniqueness of the Nokia brand [...] has always played strongly on each price point, from the lowest end feature phone to the highest end smartphone," Nummela said.

Analysts believe high-end Nokia phones are coming. The bad news? You'll need to be patient.

"We expect HMD to offer more premium handsets, especially centered around imaging capability, once it has had a little more time for its research and development teams to operate," said Ian Fogg, an analyst at IHS Markit.

Bigger opportunity

The low- to mid-range phone sector accounts for 50 percent of the global phone market, and with the Nokia 3, 5 and 6 -- not forgetting the 3310 -- HMD has this sector covered. If the company had targeted the top end of the market -- the other 50 percent -- it would be putting itself in direct competition with the deep pockets of iPhone and Samsung.

They boast marketing budgets that are "eyewatering," Wood said.


Nokia's gone for high impact, low price.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But just because Nokia isn't high end right now doesn't mean it isn't high quality. HMD is unique in the investments it is making in the mid-range, according to Sarvikas. "We can go for high impact," he said.

It is quality and "leadership in design" that Nummela promises will be the hallmark of Nokia in the ensuing months and years. He praised the "outstanding" capabilities of HMD's manufacturing partner Foxconn, which is best known for making the iPhone.

"You know our partner and our partner's capability," he said. "So whatever our designers and product team are dreaming, they can do."

Let's hope that those designers are dreaming big, because the world is watching and waiting for a flagship phone worthy of the Nokia name.